Words & Illustrations by Emily Doyle
It’s a Sunday night and The Gilded Merkin has returned to The Glee Club in Birmingham. Patrons fill the room. Two litre jugs of the venue’s signature ‘Long Island Iced Glee’ litter the tables. The lights dim and the audience buzzes expectantly.
Our host for the evening is the charming Stage Door Johnny. He casts an eye over the full room and congratulates the audience on making it through the snowstorm outside. Thankfully, he muses, it’s not as severe as the forecast predicted.
“This isn’t the first time I was promised six inches.”
Stage Door Johnny does all he can to make every person in the room feel welcome. He briefs “burlesque virgins” on how to behave, giving everyone a reminder of the etiquette in song form. Functional as it may be, his background in musical theatre shows; he’s currently doing a turn as Sweeney Todd at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.
Once the room is sufficiently warmed up, Stage Door Johnny welcomes The Gilded Merkin performer and producer, Scarlett Daggers, to the stage. Known to regulars as “the lady behind the merkin”, Daggers is eager to kick off proceedings with her ‘Tiki Tiki Boom’ act and appears draped in an oversized lei. She performs a fast-paced, playful striptease to Los Straitjackets’ surf-revival classic, ‘Kawanga’ – to be left standing in a tiny fringed bikini, at which point she produces a pair of fire-orange silks.
Daggers then performs a scarf dance which, presumably due to health and safety restrictions in such an intimate venue, replaces the fire eating portion of this routine. The silks don’t have the same glamour as flames, but when she ends the act standing triumphantly in pants and pasties, no one feels hard done by.
Mr B. The Gentleman Rhymer is next to perform. The Gilded Merkin’s stage manager, Mimi Libertine, assembles a mic stand and a board of looper pedals as Mr B. arrives on the stage, clad head to toe in tweed. He holds a banjolele. Mr B. performs his in his own musical style – ‘Chap Hop’ – and combining comedy rap with electro-swing beats, he opens with an ode to gentlemanship, ‘All Hail The Chap’.
“It’s a call to charms, a design for living,
Within a world so unforgiving,
Where sloth and banality are the standard brew.
Well, we’ve upped our standards,
So up yours too!”
As is true of many comedy musicians, the punchline comes early on in the performance. The set holds up well musically, though, and Mr B.’s lyrical delivery is flawless. He performs a hip-hop melody which weaves its way from The Sugarhill Gang to Public Enemy, followed by a Blackstreet parody with the refrain “No dignity (were you dragged up?)”.
Stage Door Johnny reappears to introduce his royal hairiness, Dave the Bear – who swaggers on stage like a brawny Captain Jack Sparrow, swigging from a bottle as a gruff sea shanty plays over the PA. He poses centre stage with his arms in shackles, and winks; in a flash, the shackles are off and the feathers atop his bicorne hat have begun to litter the stage.
Dave the Bear is a delight to watch as he poses, pouts, and sprinkles glitter into his chest hair. This does, however, leave our stage manager Mimi a lot of sweeping to do before the next act can take the stage – as Stage Door Johnny warns the audience that those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away, before allowing Lolo Brow to come out.
A table is laid with an assortment of items – a mousetrap and a staple gun are visible. Brow flings the curtains aside and storms to the front. She wears thigh high boots and a red military jacket tucked into a tight latex waist cincher. Extinguishing the cigarette she was smoking, on her tongue, she proceeds to flip the audience off before pulling a small hammer from the top of her right stocking. She then performs a classic ‘human blockhead’ act choreographed to Rihanna’s ‘S&M’.
There is visible delight on her face as she invites a member of the front row to remove a nail from her nasal cavity, before replacing it with a pair of scissors. By the end of the act, Brow has playing cards stapled to her thighs and chest; the audience winces as she staples the final card to her cheek and takes a bow, leaving behind a mucus ridden condom. Lucky Mimi.
Stage Door Johnny re-emerges to close the first act. And after Lolo Brow‘s performance, everyone is ready for a trip to either the bathroom or the bar.
In a change of pace, Miss Betsy Rose is welcomed to the stage to perform her 1950’s inspired routine – ‘Ode to April’. Miss Rose luxuriates in an enormous lilac feather boa and invites audiences members to help remove her golden gloves, before upping the tempo for a bump and grind routine. Her opulent costume and period accurate soundtrack evoke a 1950s American burlesque club; every step is carefully choreographed and it’s easy to see why she is so well regarded.
A hulking figure now appears at the back of the room, shrouded in furs. As he walks through the crowd, his long nordic braid swings from the top of his head and down the back of his cloak. He carries a hammered shield. Reaching the stage, he turns and strikes a pose lifted straight from an ancient Greek vase. He looks up, and grins. Dave the Bear has returned.
Tamar Braxton’s dance hit ‘Hot Sugar’ kicks in. Without missing a beat, Dave the Bear’s posture goes from gladiator to gogo-dancer. He whips his braid back and forth and struts across the front row, shimmying out of each item of leather armour until very little is left to the imagination. Both of his performances tonight rely on a kind of bait-and-switch, building up an archetypal macho male before joyously tearing that character to shreds with glitter and kissy faces. The most masculine thing about Dave the Bear’s performance isn’t his hirsute torso, but his brazenness.
Mr B. rounds off the second act with another set, this time featuring a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’. Whilst this does dilute his chap-hop persona a little, it’s refreshingly heartfelt.
After another short interval, Scarlett Daggers remerges. This time she wears a floor length fishtail dress, complete with embellished cobra hood. Over the course of the act she sheds this skin to reveal a floaty, chiffon number. Stage Door Johnny then takes centre stage to perform his own interpretation of Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ – think Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Foux Da Fa Fa’ and you’re half way there.
Lolo Brow is welcomed back with a collective intake of breath, but she assures the room that this will be a more visually pleasing act. “My name’s Lolo Brow and I’m going to take my clothes off”
Her purple dress and green hair are reminiscent of the Joker, and tonight we are all going to be a part of her social experiment. She explains that she has given the sound engineer an mp3 player loaded with two-hundred tracks, ranging from stripper staples to the soundtrack from High School Musical. The mp3 player will be set to shuffle, and Lolo Brow will begin her striptease. If the audience wants to hear a different song, they have to shout “change”. This is ‘The Burlesque Shuffle’.
What ensues is perhaps the most anarchic five minutes to ever grace the boards at The Glee Club. The beauty of the concept is that Brow’s performance is different every time. On this occasion it opens with Liberty X’s noughties banger, ‘Just a Little’, and culminates in Brow revealing her bedazzled nipples to the strains of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
The final performance of the night is Miss Betsy Rose. Following straight on from Lolo Brow is a bold juxtaposition, but it works. Her routine, titled ‘Lady Sublime’, is a sultry affair that echoes 1920s burlesque – draped head to toe in mint green sequins and sporting an enormous feather headpiece.
Set to a version of Duke Ellington’s 1927 ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’, this is without a doubt the night’s most decadent performance. Miss Betsy Rose lets down her hair, shrugs of her robes and executes the splits with balletic precision. The Gilded Merkin is brought to a fitting climax.
The Gilded Merkin returns to The Glee Club Birmingham on Sunday 14th October – presented by Scarlett Daggers, with Abigail Collins, Anna Fur Laxis, Kiki Lovechild, Missy Malone and Demi Noir also performing. For direct show information, including venue details and online ticket sales, visit www.glee.co.uk/performer/gilded-merkin-birmingham
For more on The Gilded Merkin, visit www.gildedmerkin.co.uk
For more from The Glee Club venues, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.glee.co.uk