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Snatched from the golden era of variety, and snatched again from Soho’s glittering cabaret scene, Ada Campe: Unexpectedly Cheerful lands live on our screens from The Phoenix Arts Club stage. While Campe’s classic fusion of magic, comedy, and music is kept relevant in spirit and content, I’m left all too mournful of the live confrontation of such delicious razzmatazz.
Wrapping us in her characterful tone, rough and regal with debaucherous experience, Campe’s artistry lies in expert story-telling. Poking eccentric fun at love, show business and (sometimes) loneliness, Campe’s joyous anecdotes are at their finest during the songs.
Owed either to the need to be more concise, or the more artful delivery, Campe’s pithy and hilarious lyrics, accompanied by the ever-engrossed Sarah on piano, keep us with her all the way. Not least, the opening number about waking up to another exhausting day of existence cunningly develops into an ode to the bygone blurry unpredictability of ‘the morning after’. No doubt, the long and trailing spoken stories (more about the journey than the destination) would have better held our attention in-person, but, in the digital space, it takes a little more pace and pazazz to keep us on board.
Nonetheless, Campe’s flair for subtle word-play, relentless catchphrases, and crafty props keep the show chugging cheerfully along. Her magic tricks are nothing we haven’t seen before, and some are a bit drawn-out with improvised quips, but her warmly charismatic delivery and nostalgic variety knack keeps us firmly in the palm of her heavily jewelled hands.
A qualm I’ve had with comedy theatre written and performed over lockdown has been it’s often lazy, sole reliance on covid cliches to relate widely to its audiences. We’re all sexually frustrated and enjoying work meetings in our concealed pyjama trousers — we get it! Unexpectedly Cheerful is fairly guilty on this part, but the closing number, a Covid-themed parody of Tom Lehrer’s iconic ‘I Got It From Agnes’, is an absolute corker of redemption and originality.
While the technical production and nifty features (Campe interracts as much as she can with a live chat function) run without a hitch, the digital production doesn’t live up to the vibrant indulgence of Campe’s style. Despite the charm of her comic self-awareness, woefully thin rounds of applause and unfortunate close-up shots of Campe’s melting drag makeup are telling reminders of our separation.
Over lockdown, we’ve seen cabaret and variety have a complete makeover; artists from across the theatrical spectrum have grasped the opportunities of digital creativity to challenge and transform their acts. When the timeless, live thrill of the cabaret bar can’t be fully replicated, Unexpectedly Cheerful could dare to do more of the unexpected towards reimagining its usual, comfortable space.
However, Max Fullam’s ventriloquist guest-spot, recorded from his bedroom, is a welcome and colourful change of pace. Evolving around the raucous reconstruction of his dummy’s head and face, Fullam fuses absurd imagery and playfully filthy humour to craft a hilariously original act.
In all her nutty decadence, feathers and all, Ada Campe is an authentically dazzling tribute to the variety stages of old. But, with a few too many solemn reminders that live theatre itself is starting to feel like a bygone era, Unexpectedly Cheerful missed a few tricks when booked for the digital stage.
Ada Campe: Unexpectedly Cheerful streamed online on 12 March as part of the Phoenix Arts Club’s online season. For more information, see Phoenix Arts Club’s website.