From a shy boy to ‘ringmaster’

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Joe Black’s heavily made-up eyes match his name. His white-powdered face looms out of the gloom and a beret is attached to the side of his head. Out of it emerges a foot-long pheasant’s feather.

Joe Black’s heavily made-up eyes match his name. His white-powdered face looms out of the gloom and a beret is attached to the side of his head. Out of it emerges a foot-long pheasant’s feather.

PERFORMER Joe Black at The Kings Theatre.  Picture: Paul Jacobs  (131698-1)

PERFORMER Joe Black at The Kings Theatre. Picture: Paul Jacobs (131698-1)

We are in Joe’s second home – a dark Kings Theatre, Southsea. He remembers, as if it were yesterday, being taken there as a child to watch the pantomimes. He was captivated by the whole experience.

The theatre is now deserted, but Joe’s colourful get-up evokes scenes from the film Cabaret. You almost expect a ghostly phalanx of uniform-wearing Nazi officers to be occupying the empty front row.

Joe now appears on the historic stage at least three times a year ‘curating’, as he calls it, his own show.

Joe prefers my suggested word for his role, ‘ringmaster’. ‘Yes! That’s it exactly. I’m the scariest Redcoat you’ve ever seen. I’m very loud and get really bolshy once I’ve got a microphone in my hand.

‘It means I’m in charge and when someone heckles me, which I love, I’ve got the power to shoot them down.

‘I’ve learned to be very quick and deal with people like hecklers instantly. I’ve had to learn not to be shy.’

A quick glance at the photograph here of Joe and that’s the last thing you would ever accuse him of being.

Next Saturday Joe, who describes himself as a ‘gin-drinking cabaret darkling’ brings his regular, naughty-but-nice House of Burlesque show back to the Kings. He describes it as being almost like a residency. ‘I love it here. How could you not?’ he purrs.

His shows often attract audiences of 800 to the Albert Road theatre, many of them dressed to thrill in a Rocky Horror Show way.

The bizarre world of burlesque and cabaret is how Joe, 24, makes his living. It has taken him around the world, touring the United States, three times, Australia and all over Europe.

But it’s a million miles and pots of make-up away from his conventional roots growing up in Portsea, Portsmouth, attending St George’s Beneficial School, St Luke’s and then South Downs College.

He says: ‘I was incredibly shy at school, but somewhere inside me I always wanted to perform. Perhaps it was those trips to the pantos at the Kings.

‘At St George’s I would always audition for the main roles in shows, but they always went to the older kids. But I did once get the part of the mayor in Dick Whittington, although I wanted to be the Rat King – the villain,’ he says with a wickedly sly grimace.

At St Luke’s he learned the piano, but was turned off the instrument because of the rigidity of the lessons. ‘Studying it killed it for me. I guess I just need to be free range to express myself.

‘But there too I was shy. I was quite happy standing in a corner quietly eating my sandwich along with all the other goths.’

From there he moved on to South Downs where he studied film, but again the formality of learning turned him off.

‘Everyone says I’m a natural performer, but I never thought about it. I knew I wanted to perform, but I never wanted to be an actor.’

Joe continues: ‘When I went to South Downs all I wanted to do was make films. I used to make stop-start animations and then shorts on tape on a little camera that came from Argos, but again studying the subject ruined it for me.

‘However, the one thing we were always short of was people to perform in front of the camera rather than behind it. So, I ended up in the films and I found I enjoyed it almost too much.’

While at college he went to a gig at the Roundhouse in London to see a band called the Dresden Dolls performing their house in London to see a band called The Dresden Dolls performing their Brechtian punk cabaret.

‘They had three stages. They performed on one. There were circus performers on another and other acts on the third. It just spoke to me. I knew there and then that was what I wanted to do.’

Performing did run in his family. His great-uncle, Norman Empire, was a great favourite in Portsmouth, dressed as a Pearly King and singing music hall standards.

Meanwhile, to pay his way through college Joe had turned himself into a living statue in Commercial Road, Portsmouth.

‘I started as a kind of Charlie Chaplin creation all in white and then there was another character which I played with a massive parlour wig, a waistcoat and a cravat. No-one could work out whether I was a man or a woman. I loved the mystery of it all.

‘And it also helped me overcome my shyness. Pretending to be someone else, someone outlandish, took me out of myself and let me be whoever I wanted.

‘The first time I did it, a homeless guy went to grab my money. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I had an umbrella so I smacked him with it. He didn’t try it again.’

He uses Portsmouth people to create some of his show’s characters. ‘In the theatrical sense Portsmouth is quite grotesque.

‘I love watching people when I’m out shopping because this city does seem to attract some extreme characters, people perfect to parody. And that’s what burlesque is all about.’

· Joe Black comperes and performs in The House of Burlesque at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, on June 29, at 7.30pm.

ABOUT BURLESQUE

American burlesque shows were an offshoot of Victorian burlesque.

The English genre had been successfully staged in New York from the 1840s and it was popularised by a visiting British burlesque troupe, Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes, beginning in 1868.

New York burlesque shows consisted of three parts: songs and ribald comic sketches by low comedians; assorted male acts, such as acrobats, magicians and solo singers; and chorus numbers on politics or a current play.

The show usually ended with an exotic dancer or a wrestling or boxing bout.

While burlesque went out of fashion in England towards the end of the 19th century, to be replaced by Edwardian musical comedy, the American style of burlesque flourished, but with increasing focus on female nudity.

The shows were given in clubs and cabarets, as well as music halls and theatres.

The transition from burlesque on the old lines to striptease was gradual. At first women showed off their figures while singing and dancing. But the strippers gradually replaced the singing and dancing girls.

By the late 1930s burlesque shows would have up to six strippers supported by one or two comics and a master of ceremonies.

The uninhibited atmosphere of burlesque establishments owed much to the free flow of alcohol and the enforcement of Prohibition was a serious blow.

In New York, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia clamped down on burlesque, effectively putting it out of business by the early 1940s.