The Burlesque Hour in Melbourne: with added Meow Meow

moira finucane burlesque performer

Moira Finucane

Burlesque has come a long way from sequins, boas and corsets with an aim to tease. That’s certainly the understanding presented by The Burlesque Hour, a production playing at Melbourne’s delightful warehouse basement club fortyfivedownstairs.

The club plays a big part in the event’s success, boasting terrific atmosphere with cabaret seating around a central catwalk, Chinese lanterns, vintage timber floor and pressed metal ceiling, and some of the friendliest door and bar staff you could hope to exchange greetings with.

Created by Jackie Smith and Moira Finucane, the show — it goes longer than an hour, thankfully — shatters the stereotypical notions of striptease, burlesque, nudity and female sexuality.

In the show we saw, Finucane was the lynchpin, carrying the politics from the catwalk to the back row with balloon-bursting ease. Her bag lady ascending to heaven was a truly poignant display in a night of great variety.

The Angels’ ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’ was destroyed by having a woman in showgirl feathered bikini carrying the tune; same again with gender-inverting drag queen-lip synced opener The Divinyls’ ‘I Touch Myself’. Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ was put to art snob-bashing good use, with a tip of the hat to the water wall at NGV as well as Poe’s ‘The Raven’, and a Flashdance-esque saturation to boot. The front rows looked pensive when the pre-song umbrellas and plastic sheets were handed out, and again when the second act set a cracking start thanks to a whip-wielding Sosina Wogayehu in dominatrix mode.

Thing was, Finucane does not conform to magazine cover concepts of celebrity good looks — no facelift, no perky tits, no Brazilian. She was, if memory serves, the only performer to appear fully naked.

The staging was superb throughout, simple but striking: cigarette smoke through black cloth, streamers of green cloth, black blood splattering naked flesh.

Elsewhere, there were heavy metal dance routines from Holly Durant and Harriet Ritchie and sheer, strawberry-flavoured elegance from MC Maude Davey.

Davey added a fine note of sexual politics by appearing nude but for long gloves, headpiece and extensive necklace while singing ‘I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl’: such a crack-up to see a naked woman flirting over the removal by teeth of one of said gloves, even as the song’s metaphor was literally stripped.

meow meow cabaret performer

Meow Meow

And there was Meow Meow, cabaret star par excellence who dazzled with an amazing range and theatrical presence, adroit at audience interaction, humour and pathos. In one of her three numbers, she out-Palmered her friend Amanda with a rendition of Dresden Dolls’ ‘Missed Me’. She was the latest guest artist to appear in the show’s nine-week run, ending next month.

Meow Meow appears later this year at the Malthouse in Little Match Girl.

The Burlesque Hour shattered expectations, unleashed beauty and the beast in the one package, and provided food for thought to take home. Yes, burlesque sure looks different down in the basement. I hope the hour strikes again soon.

Looking for words in the rabbit hole

Queensland Writers Centre CEO Kate Eltham played the white rabbit, and a bunch of we Alices gave chase: the goal, 30,000 words in three days. Some gathered in Brisbane while others of us, the diaspora of Queensland writers and other interested parties, joined in online, sharing totals and motivational mentions of caffeine.

How liberating to be given permission to abandon all but the most major of priorities in order to devote three solid days to wordage. For wordage was the goal; quality could come later. The aim was to get that story down, or at least a solid chunk of it.

My goal was a little different, though. I’d already hammered out a bit over 90K of a novel, but I had to write and insert a second point of view character to help fill in some gaps, add some suspense and provide some contrast. It’s a fairly brutal story, this one; moments of levity are to be grabbed wherever they can be had!

ms pages on a kitchen table

There's a story in there somewhere: grappling with scene progression.

I thought I had eight scenes to write, expecting no more than 1000 to 2000 words for each, and it turned out I had 10 to write, and they amounted to about 11,000 words. It took two days, averaging maybe 500 words an hour. Some of the other rabbit holers did meet their 10,000 words a day quota — w00t!

The third day of the rabbit hole was devoted to smoothing out those new scenes, reconfiguring the existing text to accommodate the new material and ensuring continuity. As is the way of things, a whole new character emerged, with enough legs to play a bigger role in a follow-up should such a thing occur. I’m tempted to call her Alice, in honour of the rabbit hole, but I’ve already got a character with that name tucked away waiting for her chance in the spotlight, so for the moment she’s Felicity because A. she’s felicitous and a felicitator but, ironically, not particularly happy, and B. I still owe two sisters a character named after them after inadvertently slipping an Amanda cameo into The Darkness Within. I have managed to slip in an Alice nod to the rabbit hole, though; I hope it survives to the final cut.

In tribute, here’s a cool clip of the Sisters of Mercy performing Alice, one of my favourite SoM songs and the inspiration for the aforementioned character in waiting. Note: The Sisters are touring with Soundwave Revolution: this is very exciting.

So, three days of fairly solid wordsmithing later, what have I got other than square eyes and a slight case of jetlag?

About 108,000 words of first draft manuscript littered with notes and sporting a most satisfying cross-hatch at the end (the mystical The End only comes when the draft is ready to be subbed — that is truly The End). And the possible beginning for a short story: what could be the second to come out of this universe.

Will the MS go anywhere? Well, that’s always the question, isn’t it? But the story feels good — rough but good — and, regardless, I enjoyed myself in my plunge down the rabbit hole, bumped into some new writers online and learnt some stuff along the way. Would I do another rabbit hole? Most definitely. It’s a three-day trip, man. Just ask Alice.

Disparate dystopian adventures: Wither and America Pacifica

Dystopia is hot, especially in young adult fiction where The Hunger Games is probably the leader of the pack. I’ve read two new additions to the field recently, and these two debut novels could hardly be more different.

I don’t normally bother to post negative reviews. I don’t think they do anyone much service, either the book nor the reviewer. After all, most stories will find an audience, and it makes more sense to me to promote good reading rather than deride less satisfactory experiences. Which leads me to Wither, by Lauren DeStefano, with which I’ve made an exception.

wither by lauren destefano

My review is somewhat withering, and I thought long and hard about posting it (in hindsight, I should’ve not used the word bullshit; I do regret any snarkiness). But at the end of the day, the book annoyed me so much, I felt opening the discussion was worth it.

I have three core beefs with the book. The first is in the world building: a shambolic thing, coming across as shallow and ill-conceived and paying little attention to what could have been, and should have been, an examination of a society in which people barely live past their teens. What does this do the economy, to social cohesion, to the very psychology of those living with built-in expirations?

The second source of disgruntlement was in the heroine, a passive creature, admittedly caught in a rough spot but not being proactive enough in trying to extricate herself.

And the third, the thing that really stuck in my craw and induced me to write that dually damning review, was the fact that I just could not get past the fact that this book is built on a foundation of sexual slavery. Not arranged marriage, not some kind of celebrity matchmaking, but slavery; slavery with the apparent purpose of genetic experimentation through procreation. What a dire situation — one existing today — this could’ve been. And as I say in the review, the real pity of it all is that DeStefano can write, and her characters are beautifully drawn and the romantic elements are deftly handled.

america pacifica by anna north

By contrast, America Pacifica by Anna North is a dark, gritty visualisation of a world gone down the gurgler. I had a few qualms with the world building here, also — the story is set on a Pacific island where refugees from a new ice age struggle to retain the vestiges of the civilisation they have lost — but found the heroine engaging and gutsy — there was no romance in the sacrifices she had to make to uncover the truth of her mother’s disappearance — and, most satisfactorily, enjoyed the social examination that North brought to the story. It doesn’t hurt that the final scene is to die for. The full review is here.

Stake Land: getting its point across

stake land vampire movie poster

This is the apocalypse with fangs, indie-style, as envisaged by director and co-writer Jim Mickle. Stake Land tracks young Martin, orphaned by a ravaging vampire, who is taken under the wing of solitary hunter Mister (co-writer Nick Damici). Shotguns, arrows, spears and stakes (no fire) are their arsenal against a zombie-like plague of vampires who have turned the USA and, it is suggested, the world, into a wasteland. The pair have a plan — to drive to New Eden, an idyllic, vampire-free zone (once again, the American fascination with Canada as a haven is front and centre).

Along the way, they pick up passengers including a nun, a pregnant singer and an ex-marine. The group scavenge food and fuel on their way north via a series of fortified towns, which try to maintain the conventions of society amidst the carnage.

A map of America reveals a number of zones of control, each posing dangers to travellers, and none moreso than the realm of the Brotherhood: a fanatical bunch of religious nutters who not only think the vampire plague is a sign of the apocalypse, but revel in it, seeking to make it worse, not better. Rape and murder are their tools of trade and they pose the greatest obstacle to the travellers.

The story meanders a bit, struggling to find a high level of suspense and direct conflict. This is largely due to it being a road journey linking various separate set action pieces which don’t always serve the plot. The characters do make some overly stupid mistakes towards the end. However, it does carry a mood of melancholy and desperation you’d hope to find in such a bleak scenario, and is pleasantly understated — there isn’t too much chatting and the performances are restrained.

Stake Land is a gritty, realistic film where the vampires are very much monsters, essentially zombies with a vulnerability to sunlight and dicky tickers, if you can get a hunk of wood through their reinforced rib cage. The actual rules by which the vampires are created remain obscure, and this does weaken the credibility of the premise a little. While a degree of confusion about the origin of the plague is to be expected in a world gone to hell, and it isn’t necessary within the context of the film, I’d have liked a clear indication as to how the vampirism spreads so I could better appreciate the threat to the characters, who do engage in a lot of hand-to-hand combat.

There is a suggestion that there are different generations — some are too tough to stake and can only be stopped by a stake to the back of the head, for instance — and indeed there is mention of mutations of vampire — some are capable of higher thought, most seem to be little more than animals. But yet, a bite appears to be a likely way of making a vampire, which suggests vampirism as contagion.

But this movie is not about the vampires; in fact, a zombie plague would’ve worked just as well, and there is little difference between the two as depicted here.

No, the sharp end of the flick is aimed at the religious right as Mickle tests society’s thin veneer when it’s brought under stress, and vampires were just a handy critter for some cool effects and fight scenes. All that blood, and there is something cool about an ornery mysterious stranger riding into town and popping a bag of extended canines on the bar, isn’t there?

In some ways, the story has the mood of The Road, but that slice of post-apocalyptic America has far more intensity. Stake Land does, however, deliver a well-acted, good-looking and above-average adventure where the humans can be just as inhumane as the monsters. Tasty, but not overly filling.

Things to do in Melbourne #6: get in the Brunswick Street groove

polly cocktail barMelbourne’s Brunswick Street is one of happening precincts where sub-cultures come together and drink coffee — possibly with soy milk. We had a taste test last night, hitting a couple of hot spots: Brunswick Street Gallery, Polly, Polyster records and books, and Grub Street Bookshop. Ah, kulcha!

The gallery is established in a three-storey house and boasts narrow stairs and two floors of exhibition rooms of varying colour, lighting and space. Last night’s selection of opening exhibits was reasonably eclectic: a photographic display of the zodiac using friends of the photographer and another showcasing the female form in a largely empty room; pop art protests; still lifes perhaps aimed at the cafe set; a projected installation; big photos of kids in cages with A Message; an ode to Kodachrome using a Chinese scene. My favourite showing, though, displayed in a delightfully red room with defunct fireplace where its black and white drawings really popped, was Transform by Hannah Mueller: her pictures had narrative, dimension due the overlaying of cutouts, and lots of skeletons and other repeating motifs, including birds, vivisection and masks. Mueller’s bio, if I remember it accurately, said she was a Sydneysider still at art college or uni, in which case, whoa! Sadly, no web presence that I could find to point you to (I don’t think this Hannah is the one in Assassin’s Creed, though it might explain some stuff!), and the BSG website is kind of obtuse and annoying.

Anyway, within staggering distance of the gallery and on opposite sides of the street are the two Polyster stores, one dealing in alternative books — lots of tattoos and art, social commentary and Interesting Stuff, and the other in alternative cds and vinyl. Nearby is Grub, complete with secondhand bookstore smell and narrow aisles, a minuscule genre fiction section but a truly drool-worthy non-fiction section heavy on the arts and the humanities.

The jewel in the crown of last night’s stroll was Polly. Oh, Polly! With its concrete floor and red velvet couches, its classy nekkid ladies upon the stressed red walls, its funky brass handles on the door of the loos, and its separate smoking antechamber at the front. It offers a fine array of absinthe and cocktails, and the tastiest little $6 pizzas, and pretty darn good service, too. Its decadent lavishness would suggest it to be the natural environment of a goth/burlesque crowd, but I think the hipsters might’ve outpriced them. I haven’t been in town long enough to know the tides of the sub-culture drift. Regardless, it’s a comfy space and one of my favourite Melburnian drinking holes so far.