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TheatreNotes reviews The Burlesque Hour

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…I spent my Sunday evening with the good women of the Burlesque Hour: Glory Box at fortyfivedownstairs. Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith have built a loyal audience over the years of presenting the Burlesque Hour, and so the long queue outside the venue should not have been a surprise: I can’t think of a better way to spend a gloomy winter evening in Melbourne. Hilarious, witty, erotic, liberating and beautiful, they put the “adult” into adult entertainment. I have sometimes thought that anyone who claims – as is said with monotonous regularity in comment threads on the web – that feminists are humourless, sexless misandrists should be forced to watch a Finucane and Smith show. But they don’t deserve to have so much fun.

The venue has been transformed into a cabaret club with a long catwalk, decorated with festoons of Chinese lanterns, and with candle-lit tables crammed into every available space. The only thing missing from the Weimar Republic millieu is Bertolt Brecht puffing cigars in a corner. The theme for Glory Box is, well, forbidden fruit, and it’s introduced by Finucane, in a plastic bikini decorated with sequinned fig leaves, eating an apple in one of her more outrageous characterisations: the apple is forbidden to everyone else, except for those sitting close enough to be showered with pips. These women own their sexuality: they might bare everything, but they don’t offer passive meat for the eye’s entitled consumption. These are bodies that look back. And shout back.

As always, there are favourite acts from former shows, interspersed with new work, and a few guests. In the show I saw, the guests were international cabaret superstars Meow Meow and Ursula Martinez (she of the Hanky Panky strip tease); upcoming is sword swallower Miss Behave. Meow Meow is as bewitching as ever, the dominitrix who suddenly turns around and breaks your heart. Martinez performs Hanky Panky, still one of the best and funniest magic acts I’ve ever seen, and her new act is literally on fire.

The regular acts include Finucane’s outrageous monologues (Get Wet for Art, which requires those seated around the stage to be swathed in plastic and armed in umbrellas) and Medusa, a dance of marine eroticism choregraphed by Yumi Umiumare. There’s a work written by Christos Tsolkias performed in thrilling formal chorus by all the artistes. The extraordinary Maude Davey produces one of the heart stopping moments of the show when she appears, naked except for antlers and bodypaint, singing Portishead’s Glory Box. She holds a cow’s heart to her breast, lifting it out from her body so it leaves a bloody stain, creating a breathtaking image of wild female desire, vulnerable and powerful. And she performs a version of Patti Smith’s Gloria that has to be experienced to be believed.

Harriet Ritchie and Holly Durant give us variations on their duo act, including a surprisingly moving robot dance, and stunning solo moments: I loved Durant’s tribute to Donna Summer, a fantasy of rhinestones and veils that’s like something Meyerhold might have directed in Paris in the 1920s (yes, I’ve seen pictures, he did). There’s trapeze and hula hoop action from Anna Lumb. It’s everything you expect from a Finucane and Smith show, rolled up into a glorious and breathless two hours.

All of which explains why I am finding it so difficult to stay home. Melbourne, you are a harsh mistress.

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