November 12 2012
"I want to have fun,” says Jeremy King with characteristic debonair charm as he leans back into the black-and-white deco-inspired banquette that runs along the back wall of The Crazy Coqs. “Both Chris [Corbin] and I are at that stage of life where we only want to do things because they excite us.” And what excites them now is cabaret.
The duo behind the renaissance of restaurants including London’s The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey (all later sold as part of Caprice Holdings in 1998) and, in the last decade, the launch of fin-de-siècle Viennese-style grand cafés, such as The Wolseley and The Delaunay, are changing the tempo of the cabaret zeitgeist in London. Along with The Matcham Room at The Hippodrome and Studio at St James Theatre – two other sophisticated cabaret venues also to have opened their doors in the second half of 2012 – they are moving the trend away from the sauciness of burlesque, as well as the shock tactics of acts seen in hip alternative‑cabaret venues such as The Box, towards something more refined and nuanced. “I wanted to experience what I had seen in New York,” explains King.
It’s a bold move for Corbin and King. The Crazy Coqs, a boutique vision of 1930s humbug-striped-walled and vermilion-curtained glory that seats just 66, is their first foray into live performance. Understandably, there is a frisson of risk, but, says King, “There is confidence and there is arrogance. I was entirely confident that if we had the right type of people [on stage], then it wouldn’t be arrogant to expect it to work. There are a lot of fun performance spaces in London, and if we do this properly, we have a chance of being one of the pre-eminent ones. I like to think we might become the grande dame of Soho.”
The venue, which opened in June, is tucked to one side as you descend the staircase en route to the cavernous, marbled glitz of this summer’s addition to the Corbin and King empire – Piccadilly’s Brasserie Zédel. Along with the elegant American Bar, the rooms in the basement of the listed building, which was once the Regent Palace Hotel, form a triumvirate of subterranean vigour that pulsates beneath the beep and bustle of one of London’s busiest cultural crossroads, where Chinatown and Soho jostle against the edges of Mayfair. “We had the same feeling as when you walk into the hall of a house after looking at 20 properties and you know it is the one. We just knew this would make a really great cabaret space,” says King.
“For me, there is nothing more exciting than live entertainment and the sort of crowd it brings. I felt that if we made this into a cabaret instead of an ancillary bar or events room, it would be the least profitable course of action, but the most beneficial – because it is fun.” That word again. King had also been influenced by his work on the board of the Soho Theatre – the buzz of pre‑performance preparations and the post-show high spirits would be an invaluable way to introduce some “heart and soul” into the mix.
King’s involvement with the Soho Theatre also opened his eyes to the “big need for live-performance spaces in London”, a need that has intensified since the loss, in 2010, of Pizza on the Park, the jazz and cabaret institution that was the passion-over-profits project of PizzaExpress founder Peter Boizot. In its 28-year history it had hosted, among others, George Melly, Cleo Laine and even an impromptu set by Liza Minnelli (who nipped down from her Royal Albert Hall show to sing with her then boyfriend Billy Stritch). “There was a massive hole left when it closed,” King says. He now wants The Crazy Coqs to be the place that hosts “people from both sides of the Atlantic and introduces Londoners to acts they would never get to see”.
As with Pizza on the Park, the intimacy of King’s venue is key. “I get less and less interested in those who perform at the Royal Festival Hall whose roots are in jazz clubs,” he confides. “Some of my best experiences have been in cosier places because you feel the energy and can engage more with the artists.”
Ty Jeffries, who performs as Miss Hope Springs every Sunday night at The Crazy Coqs, says the club is “perfect for the kind of cabaret I do – it has an embracing, womb-like feeling that’s intimate and a two‑way street. I’m not doing my performance for the audience – I’m doing it with them.” Ruth Leon, the club’s theatre director adds that “grown-up songs, sung by grown-up singers” play to crowds “who have lived and want to feel the singers have lived and are bringing the audience the songs as part of their life story,” which, she says, explains why there are never any teenagers in cabaret audiences. Performer Issy van Randwyck says of her recent solo show Bright Lights and Promises at The Crazy Coqs: “It’s about wonderful things that have happened [to me] – and the disappointments. There are some funny moments and there are some poignant ones – that’s where I am in my life.”
It is this highly personal emotional intensity of the performer that sets cabaret apart from plays or musical theatre, a distinction that St James Theatre – London’s first new‑build theatre for 32 years – embraced within its architectural plans. It opened its doors to a 312-seat auditorium in September this year, and a month later scheduled weekend cabaret evenings in the downstairs Studio – a more informal 100-seat room with a bar to one side and chairs clustered round small tables. The venue distinguishes itself from the main theatre because there is no “fourth wall” says associate artistic director James Albrecht. “Audiences don’t passively watch – there’s a conversation. They have to let you in.” Here, as with similar venues, patrons aren’t in the stalls, alienated from the stage – the artist is incredibly close and, stripped of elaborate sets and a full orchestra, can wander freely through the crowd, forging intense, richly rewarding bonds.
Over at The Matcham Room, which opened in July in the newly renovated Hippodrome casino on Leicester Square, a space for cabaret brings a convivial buzz to the venue, brightening and heightening the energy surrounding the gambling tables. Creative director Nick Frankfort, a former executive producer of the Donmar Warehouse, sees the room as drawing upon the curtain-up dynamism of the area. “We’re in an old theatre in the heart of the West End – let’s speak to that theatrical temperature.” And he too loves showcasing talent in an intimate space. “You can have an especially exciting or tense evening in a small room with a singer. It’s different from a gig, concert or the theatre – it has a unique quality that’s shared with a select group of other people.”
The creation of these new performance spaces is, in part, driven by the performers themselves, who want venues where they can craft more idiosyncratic one‑man shows, as opposed to big-scale, crowd-pleasing ones. “There is a flourishing community of artists who want to perform in small spaces,” says Frankfort. Although larger than either the St James Studio or The Crazy Coqs, The Matcham Room, with a capacity of just over 180, is still relatively snug. Yet it has no trouble engaging big-name performers, such as Dionne Warwick, Cerys Matthews and Suzi Quatro, who “are used to playing much larger halls. What they were intrigued to do is create a show that’s much more intimate, much more personal and that they have much greater control over.”
The adoption of the New York cabaret model by these new London venues also allows “great artists known for one thing to do another, to take songs and interpret them in their own way,” says Frankfort. This “can be very empowering [for artists], who can choose material they wouldn’t normally get to sing”. Those performing against type this year include veteran actor John Standing, whose Cole Porter show is a regular fixture at The Crazy Coqs, and actress Anne Reid, whose autobiographical “evening of song, nostalgia and humour” was at the Studio earlier this month, following a night of soul and jazz from Sharon D Clarke – fresh from playing Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, The Musical at the Piccadilly Theatre. “We’re getting into our stride about the singer as an artist in their own right who doesn’t necessarily need a ‘show’ to present them,” enthuses Frankfort.
In this informal set-up, the songs are more often than not from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, and are used as a poignant vehicle in the evening’s autobiographical narrative. US cabaret artist Karen Oberlin has an upcoming Doris Day show at The Crazy Coqs, while actress Stefanie Powers recently interpreted the music of Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart at The Matcham Room. The music harks back to a golden era of cabaret, which, to contemporary audiences, has an innocence that is a welcome distraction from the issues dominating newspaper front pages. (“Cabaret is always huge when people are on their uppers and want to be taken away from the real world,” says Ty Jeffries.)
Of course, the opulent décor of these spaces is integral to their image. And for one, it gave rise to its transformation from bar to cabaret venue – The Beaufort Bar at The Savoy, a room that glitters with black and gold magnificence, with gilt alcoves and a polished inky glass bar. “I was inspired by archive images of The Savoy’s cabaret evenings from the 1930s,” says communications director Brett Perkins, who invited black-bobbed chanteuse Holly Penfield and award-winning master of ceremonies Dusty Limits to curate a monthly cabaret show, which began in April this year. “It may be a case of looking back with rose-tinted glasses, but [the 1930s] seemed like a more glamorous age, and people are looking for that again.” To play up the bar’s illustrious history, the acts pay homage to the past, “from Holly singing ‘Smile’, which was composed by Charlie Chaplin, a Savoy regular, to Ginger Blush’s Marilyn Monroe-based act – Monroe held two press conferences with Laurence Olivier at the Savoy,” says Perkins.
It’s a similar story at The Crazy Coqs, where designer and architect David Collins – a Corbin and King collaborator for more than 14 years – was given the task of recreating the room’s original features. The décor – “conceived as an ode to modernism and the cinematic jazz age”, as Collins describes it – was not only a muse for the vision for the room but also the name, which sets it firmly within cabaret’s colourful historical tradition. As King explains: “I was looking at the illuminated cockerels on the room’s original clock, and it seemed to me like they were facing off. I also thought of the great cabaret spaces in Paris – The Crazy Horse and Le Chat Noir. And so we thought – The Crazy Coqs.”
Not surprisingly, old-school cabaret stars are fired up by this renewed enthusiasm for the genre. “I hope this wave of new venues, with their more sophisticated programmes, is going to change perceptions of cabaret,” says Paul L Martin, musical comedy raconteur and creator of the London Cabaret Awards, which, interestingly, launched this year. “Weirdly, though, we didn’t have an award for this sort of [New York-style] show and act,” he says, “but we’re introducing a category for 2013.”
“The capital is blazing a trail,” opines Dusty Limits, “In decades to come, people will think of early 21st-century London as one of the golden ages of cabaret, up there with 19th-century Paris, Weimar Berlin and New York in the 1950s. Where else can you find this combination of classic cabaret, jazz, burlesque, freak-show, clowning and circus?”