I’m a huge fan of Polly, the woman beside me says: she’s the best in the business. We’re sitting on the far left of a crowded semi-circle that cups the stage. I can’t hear her exacts words, which are drowned out by both the frank invitations of Khia’s My Neck, My Back and the murmuring crowd around us.
For Underbelly Festival’s debut season, Miss Polly Rae reprises her popular show Between the Sheets with new and exclusive material. Within a cavernous spiegeltent, festooned with lights and disco balls, the lovely MC and her colourful troupe celebrate perversion, outlandish desires, and love in the 21st century. Although advertised as cabaret, the show is more a heady mixture of burlesque, striptease and variety.
Soon the lights are killed and the tent goes pitch black – save for a white, glowing sheet in front of the catwalk. Behind it lies a scene of men and women, angelically silhouetted but suggestively posed. The light flickers softly, and each time the scene shifts: the result is a kind of orgiastic moving picture. It’s a clever little teaser for what proves to be a most excellent and myriad light show.
A lithe figure, purple skinned with neon hair and lips, struts out of the darkness and across the dim stage. Beau Rocks starts us off with a straightforward, purely sensuous dance routine. It feels like a retro sci-fi mixture of burlesque and rave, with a lush chair routine to really get your rocks off. Between the Sheets is very much a millennial production – from the selection of predominantly 90s popular music, down to the costuming.
Beau less than subtly finishes up by pouring glowing, multicolored paint all over herself. After the applause a sultry voice emerges from the audience. Miss Polly Rae, from where I’m sitting, appears to be wreathed by rays of golden light. She slinks towards the stage, flirting and quipping with audience members along the way, as she introduces herself and the show to newcomers. Rae sweetly explains that we are between her sheets – her world of fantasy and desire.
The acts get along at a brisk pace. Most are elaborate stripteases, varying between pastiche or parody, with suitably elaborate outfits. If they aren’t especially sophisticated, one is easily distracted by both the dazzling lights and the troupe’s physical sensuousness. The women are voluptuous, the men chiseled, and all are very limber. Tom Cunningham and Myles Brown prove to be the mainstay of the show, featuring in at least half of it. They are the most dynamic of the bunch (at least on the ground…) both physically and emotively.
Lily Snatchdragon, as Miss Rae’s long-suffering understudy, provides two coarsely comedic interludes. Her character is a mishmash of Oriental Asian stereotypes – ‘I’m Thai but the kimono is Japanese, deal with it’ – down to the saccharine falsetto. Lily bemoans both her lot in life, (avoiding) to clean up after the rest’s escapades, and her desire for British nationality. The highlight is a very blue parody of I’d Do Anything, including raucous suggestions from backstage. Playing desperation for laughs is a tricky thing, and Lily’s momentum does flag at moments however.
Personally, my favourite part of the evening is also the least overtly sexual. Acrobatics partners Duo Visage mesmerise the crowd, almost to complete silence, suspended upon an aerial hoop. Intertwined they perform seemingly impossible feats of contortion and agility, lowering each other down and up and around, all while spinning in the air.
It was a tough one to follow. In barely-there lingerie, Kitty Bang Bang sets the stage aflame – literally so, at the climax – twirling torches and swallowing fire. Yet the striptease and the gyrating almost feels perfunctory here, and definitely a distraction. ‘Pony Play’, with Brown and Cunningham as the stallions and Rae the rider, starts promisingly but ends up feeling a little mechanical.
Wrapping up the show, to everyone’s dismay, Miss Rae proffers one last act. Kitty sweeps the stage again in a flowing black dress, a classic femme fatale, for a jaw-dropping reprise. Stripping the dress away, she climbs into a raised basin of water. I soon receive a light showering, while the Polly fan beside me gets soaked. (It’s sour, she says with a little grimace). Sweat and water dripping down my face, I behold the sexpot – clad in fiery, spinning nipple tassels – getting raunchy and wet inside a giant, also flame-rimmed cocktail glass.
Between the Sheets is an extravaganza of earthly delights, both carnal and otherwise. Director/Art Director Laura Corcoran and Klare Wilkinson have put together a fun production that rises above itself. The focus is on striptease, and the cast is very comfortable in their own skin. Yet the show makes a balancing act of titillation, erotica, laughter and serious stagecraft. It doesn’t always work, but what strikes me is how earnest the troupe appear to be.
‘Love is what it’s all about’, Polly Rae declares in the finale. I might even believe her.
Many thanks to Underbelly Festival for inviting us to the show. Photography: Jason Moon/ Underbelly.