When I was putting together the text for our May cover story on Torture Garden and its then imminent 21st Birthday celebrations, little did I know that three short paragraphs in my preview would come back to bite both me and TG on the bum.
Reflecting Torture Garden’s own worries about people’s reactions to the freezing temperatures at an earlier Coronet Theatre event, I had written:
If you’re one of those people with misgivings about this venue as a result of the problems with inadequate heating on the exceptionally cold night of TG’s Valentines party, then do remember that below-freezing temperatures are not a normal feature of the May climate in London!
However, TG assures us that is has made various changes at the venue to accommodate unseasonal extremes. The outside area will be occupied by a new fully enclosed marquee with heaters that will keep it warm even if the temperature drops to –7degC.
In reality the ambient temperature is more likely to be around +9degC — which is why TG is “actually hiring cooling fans for the Ballroom”.
I wrote this because I was confident that TG would not let the English weather, however vile and unpredictable, mess up another one of their events in the way it had messed up the Valentines Ball.
But it would appear that, after the Birthday Ball at the Coronet in May and this month’s Jubilee Weekend party in Brixton, some lessons still need to be learnt. I’ll come back to what I think those lessons are a little later.
PART ONE: FRIDAY MAY 4 One lesson I personally had taken away from the earlier Valentines weekend was not to miss the Friday night boat party in any future programme pairings of that ilk that TG might come up with.
HMS President has turned out to be a delightful venue for a certain size and type of TG event, and friends convinced me that missing the Valentines kick-off on the boat had been a Big Mistake.
So when the Birthday Weekend programme was announced for May, with not one but two events starting the weekend off aboard the sturdy steamer moored on the Thames, planning my work schedule was a no-brainer.
Especially since the first event was a new departure for TG: a seated cabaret show with some top burlesque performers lined up to entertain in the early evening.
HMS Kabaret, as it was dubbed, was to be followed by a “regular” TG Boat party starting around normal starting time for a TG event.
This kind of two-up scheduling, where people have to buy two separate tickets (or a combined ticket) for two events on the same night at the same venue, will be familiar to people attending German events such as Fetish Evolution, but is not that common on the London fetish scene.
It is particularly attractive to promoters when the cost of venue hire is relatively expensive in relation to the venue capacity and the most the promoter can charge per head — something that certainly applies to TG parties on HMS President, which is quite pricey to hire.
One night’s venue hire with two lots of admission fees does make the venture more financially viable, providing you achieve capacity on both
In such circumstances, one night’s venue hire with two lots of admission fees does make the venture more financially viable, providing you achieve capacity on both, of course.
Which unfortunately, TG didn’t on this occasion. If the upside is the potentially bigger return from having “two sittings” at a venue, then the downside is that it can be harder to sell out a double-header that starts before most people have even thought about eating, let alone about getting dressed up for a night of pervery.
The ideal solution to that problem is probably that you pull in two completely different crowds: the early birds who take in the cabaret but don’t stay for the party, and the more traditional TG partygoers who consider they’ve done well if they’ve arrived by midnight.
However, Torture Garden has no reputation (yet) as a promoter of seated cabaret events. So while HMS Kabaret might well have pulled in some people who were more cabaret fans than pervy party lovers, the success of this innovative piece of programming was always likely to depend primarily on persuading enough typical TG types to take the plunge.
TG certainly did its best to provide an attractive line-up. To start with, there was Frank Sanazi, compering and doing a full musical set with his wayward daughter Nancy and her unpredictable lactation.
There were two performers from the Berlin cabaret scene — doll-faced blonde burlesque artist Julietta la Doll (fortuitous name, that) and, making her London solo show debut, top fetish-model-turned-performer Eden Berlin, who made interesting use of ritualistic costumes and original back-projected video.
Next act up, EastEnd Cabaret, were new to me but one of the undoubted highlights of the evening. These two women specialise in witty and hilarious filth with musical interludes and unsuspecting punter participation — which all found easy resonance with tonight’s pervy audience.
I laughed so much at these two, I thought my trousers would never dry. And they left me wondering how anyone could easily “follow that”.
But follow that Miss Polly Rae did, treating us to a brilliantly observed, sardonic, bawdy, Lancashire-vowelled musical piss-take of “blokeness”, the like of which you hardly expect from someone who looks as divine as she does in a full-length ’40s-style ballgown.
This number was so good, it could have been an act all in itself. So when it turned out to be just the warm-up to one of Polly’s full-on fandance routines, it just ramped up the audience appreciation levels even further.
I am extremely jealous that my associate Mister David De Vynél was treated to a close encounter with Miss Rae and her fine-looking fans
I am extremely jealous that my associate Mister David De Vynél, sitting on the other side of our table, was treated to a close encounter with Miss Rae and her fine-looking fans.
But given that he decks himself out like a 1940s spiv these days, I suppose it was only to be expected that their adopted eras would attract each other.
HMS Kabaret was undeniably a great evening’s entertainment. So much so that I really hope TG will consider repeating it in the future.
But preferably not as part of a double-header, where the sheer commitment needed for an early start and a late finish may limit the potential audience.
After a short break enabling anyone who had attended the first part of the night in civvies to change into outfits that would meet the dresscode for part deux, the first Boat Party punters were let in.
Although the Boat Party was conceived primarily as a social warm-up for Saturday, partygoers were also due to be treated to second (and different) performances by HMS Kabaret stars Polly, Eden and Julietta, as well as a show by Marnie Scarlet that involved pulling nautical flags out of naughty places.
Soon the cosy bar on the President’s main deck was awash with familiar faces — including a good few folk from TG’s established international brigade alongside some welcome new overseas attendees.
It was a pleasure to see old friend and erstwhile Skin Two Los Angeles correspondent James Johnston and his girl Sharon reacquainting themselves with London after an absence of a couple of years.
It was reassuring, too, to see that SadEast and FrankFrancois were over from Switzerland, as no TG party is truly international without those two.
New faces from beyond our shores included globetrotting model Lacy Black (in the company of Emma Alexa and Richard Knightly, whom she’d first met and shot with in Montreal) and Austin White, a curvy redhead model from LA with Bettie Page bangs and cheekbones to die for.
As overseas visitors always energise events, I felt this augured well for the tone of the weekend as a whole, confirming as it did that TG’s Birthday was properly on this year’s international agenda despite competition from other big events during May.
What did not augur so well was what greeted me when I stepped out onto HMS President’s open rear deck to do some shots of Miss Britne against a Thames background.
Cold wind and drizzle. There’d been a hint of it as I’d arrived at 7.30pm for the cabaret, but clearly it was waiting for darkness to fall to do its dirty worst.
This was not the kind of weather one expected in London in early May. But hopefully it was just an aberration, and Saturday would bring with it a repeat of the summer warmth that had held last year’s Birthday Ball at the Coronet in its balmy embrace right through until dawn.
Oh well, the best laid plans of mice and men, eh?
It was reassuring to see that SadEast and FrankFrancois were over from Switzerland, as no TG party is truly international without them
PART TWO: SATURDAY MAY 5 By the time I left home for Saturday’s celebrations at the Coronet, the autumnal drizzle of Friday night had upgraded itself to full-on winter downpour status. Quite an achievement for the beginning of May.
What are the chances, I wondered as I hopped on a train in rainsodden Lewisham — where everyone with any sense had stayed indoors — that the venue would need those promised cooling fans tonight?
Searching for my photographer’s pass, lost somehow after the previous night’s Boat party, had delayed my journey, but at least when I got to the venue there was not a massive delay getting in out of the rain.
Inside, however, everyone was being told that the upstairs cloakroom was subject to very long queues. (Very long queues? At Torture Garden? Surely not!) The advice was therefore that we all used the outside cloakroom.
Being aware that TG’s plans to counter the effects of weather extremes in the external section of the venue (the alleyway between the main building and railway arches) included provision of a heated marquee and additional overhead rain protection, I was expecting the outside cloakroom now to be outside only in the purely technical sense.
However, queuing to get to it proved to be another miserably cold and wet experience, since for at least half the length of the very, very, very slowly-moving line, one was obliged to pass through the open smoking area where one was still fully exposed to the elements.
So, TG, the outside cloakroom was, once again, a fail.
Don’t get me wrong — the heated marquee was brilliant, but no help to cloakroom users. This being the case, here’s my tip for organising weather cover at future venues (very much including Dex in Brixton).
If at any point between entering the venue and reaching the cloakroom counter, you look directly upwards and you see sky, you have not taken care of the problem.
Once back indoors, however, conditions improved dramatically, as you would hope. The ambient temperature throughout the venue seemed fine to me, but then as a person carrying some extra weight, I am a little better insulated than slimmer types, and a few people were obviously still not too happy.
Out by the box office a little later, I happened to witness the departure of one couple, who explained more in sorrow than anger that they had to leave because it was so cold, they just couldn’t stand it any more.
They didn’t shout, make a big fuss, or demand a refund, and the box office staff were profusely apologetic. But unsatisfied customers leaving early is the last thing you want, especially when the cause of their dissatisfaction is something that just should not be a problem at an indoor venue.
To be fair, TG does appear to be getting a rough ride from the local council, which is making a regular habit of coming in to do inspections on the day and forcing TG to turn off the overhead gas heaters put in to make the alleyway temperature more bearable.
But from this latest outing it’s clear that in some respects, comfort at the Coronet is still a work in progress.
Coronet events are when TG really goes to town on shows, and there was a Birthday line-up guaranteed to keep us returning to the big stage
Coronet events are, of course, when Torture Garden really goes to town on its shows, and there was a Birthday line-up guaranteed to keep us photographers returning to the big stage in the main auditorium for a good proportion of the evening.
Friday night’s HMS Kabaret hit act EastEnd Cabaret had been signed up to MC Saturday’s stage shows as well as slipping in a couple of numbers from their show — a task they tackled, er, womanfully.
First act to be introduced on the big stage was French performer Jon John, who turned out to be a sort of Fakir Musafar Lite. Dressed in Aztec-ish garb with bells hanging from chest piercings, he did some ritualistic fire-play stuff before being suspended by leather wrist and ankle cuffs while holding a metal plate between his teeth.
Everything happened at a fairly ponderous pace, presumably to reflect the serious shamanistic nature of the proceedings. I was snapping away when a voice in my ear said , “This is boreeng! Don’t you think this is boreeng?”
It was one half of the only French couple I knew who were there that evening. When French people, normally so proud of their national culture, tell an English person that they think another French person is boring, well, that is some indictment.
Personally I didn’t find it to be substantially different from other suspension rituals I’ve watched. Although when you’ve been treated to people being suspended by flesh-hooks as often as TG audiences have, someone who uses leather cuffs instead might, I suppose, seem like a bit of a pussy.
Later, different folk were similarly disparaging about the general standard of outfit sported by the Birthday Ball audience. Not enough people had made enough effort was a comment I heard voiced by one or two.
But there is an extent to which, as I have discovered from long experience, people often see only what they want to see at a Torture Garden party. Someone in a grumpy mood will not always see the great outfits noticed by people in happier frames of mind.
The night’s fashion show spot — always a major deal at the Coronet — was given over to Bibian Blue, the highly regarded Barcelona-based corsetier.
Bibian Blue’s show mixed TG ‘house models’ with recruits from further afield such as Norally of Cyberesque and Austin White from LA
As usual, the show featured a bunch of TG’s ever-popular long-legged “house models”, and they took the stage alongside several recruits from further afield such as Norally from German label Cyberesque and Lost Angeles-based Austin White.
The designs, mainly corset-dress combos, were as spectacular as befits an event of this import, and a reminder of the standard other designers are going to have to meet in order to win a fashion spot at any future Coronet event.
Following Bibian Blue and returning to TG for another extravaganza that dipped into the butcher’s offal bin for props, circus freakshow performer Chrisalys teamed up with Sabrina Sweepstakes for a scenario of unrequited lust and unbridled gore that had the audience applauding and grimacing in equal measure.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was Yusura Bush Watcher’s stunning top-of-the-evening show.
The Japanese beauty started out by hitting us with iconic images of rock’n’roll guitar-burning and grinding before moving on and up to present a consummate aerial performance high above the Coronet stage, level with the lighting rig.
Her eventual return to stage level could easily have signified the end of the show but turned out instead to herald part three, featuring a flaming bullwhip performance.
Only after this was the traditional red confetti released from the rafters to indicate the end of the night’s live entertainment.
I left feeling that Yusura’s one-woman show had been every bit a match for Bibian Blue’s fashion spectacular, and that they deserved equal billing at the top of tonight’s programme.
SUNDAY MAY 6 Day three of TG’s three-day extravaganza was mostly spent by me in bed recovering from days one and two. One day I swear I’ll make it to the Sunday party, because those who do manage it always say they had a great time. Oh well, maybe next year.
Yusura’s show was every bit a match for Bibian Blue’s fashion spectacular; both deserved equal billing at the top of tonight’s programme