“Francisco Hidalgo, the flamenco choreographer, does outstanding work with the company of dancers”
House of Flamenka brings together a wealth of talent in the form of music, singing and dancing, all under the direction of Arlene Phillips. Phillips co-created this show with singer and dancer Karen Ruimy. Together these celebrated artists have produced a show that is best described as a fusion of flamenco and contemporary dance styles accompanied by an upbeat and updated medley of songs. The music includes everything from classics such as Bésame Mucho and Dance Me To The End Of Love (sung by Ruimy) to a more contemporary pop and hip hop vibe for the dancers. Ruimy does the singing to great effect, and the dancers are energetic and versatile. The show is sexy, and alluring.
There is a story to House of Flamenka, but audiences could be forgiven for not noticing. It is the most minimal of narratives, designed to bring together a singer, some dancers, and a set and costumes that would seem improbable under any other circumstances. It is a Broadway fantasy taken to extremes that will remind audiences, frankly, of the darker side of Los Angeles, rather than New York. But for what it’s worth, the narrative involves “a goddess of music and dance whose passion is collecting beautiful objects.” The programme note warns us that hubris is about to visit, but we never really get to find out how or why, unless it’s the disappearance of most of the set in the second half. At any rate, the goddess (Ruimy) presides over a show by her beautiful objects, and often participates. The whole event takes place in her extravagantly designed house, and is, indeed, an appropriate setting for the kind of entertainment that House of Flamenka provides.
There are many strong elements in House of Flamenka, and the footwork in the flamenco influenced numbers is particularly notable. Francisco Hidalgo, the flamenco choreographer, does outstanding work with the company of dancers, many of whom have distinguished careers in the flamenco world. Other dancers are from the world of contemporary dance and dance of the African diaspora — with equally distinguished experience. One of the great challenges of a show like this, then, is how to bring it all together. James Cousins does a brilliant job with the choreography of the numbers that feature contemporary dance. But it has to be said that flamenco, danced only by men (with the exception of Ruimy) feels incomplete, no matter how skillful the artists. Jasmine Swan who designed both set and costumes, manages a functional set despite its extravagance, but the costumes bring more attention to themselves, rather than to the dancers. The exception here are Ruimy’s costumes, which she changes for every number. They are both brilliantly designed and very flattering. But the point of fusion is to bring a variety of diverse styles and traditions together in a satisfying way. Sadly, House of Flamenka doesn’t really manage this in a way that feels organically whole.
If you go to House of Flamenka in search of art house flamenco rather than Broadway, you might be disappointed. Given the extraordinary abilities of the assembled company, you might also feel that House of Flamenka does not quite manage the diversity of its material to best effect. It is missing something that would turn this show from simply a good evening in the theatre, to something truly memorable.
“John Patrick Elliott’s live score throbs beneath the anecdotes in perfect harmony”
Say what you want about the pandemic (and a lot has been said), but in retrospect it is vaguely possible now to glimpse some positive repercussions. And time always has a habit of painting thick coats of nostalgia over past events, so that many of us now recall fondly those empty days of 2020, freed from the guilt that naturally accompanies inactivity, but free to explore undiscovered creativity. One individual who grasped that opportunity by the horns is Jack Holden. A ripple of an idea evolved into a stream (quite literally a live stream – and one which reshaped the burgeoning artform) which in turn evolved into the first new play to open in the West End after lockdown. Its second run comes with rumours of a feature film in development.
Two little gripes to get out the way before continuing. I reviewed the show last year at the Duchess Theatre, and little – if anything – has changed; so it would be easy just to copy and paste. But if the content remains the same, the perception has altered slightly. With the added passage of time, the second-hand nature of Holden’s writing is that much more apparent. His ingenious wordplay and gifted command of the stage remains undisputed, but these are other people’s stories. It went unnoticed before, but now there is a vague sense that the integrity, of one born too late, might be questioned.
The performance does its utmost to silence any reservations, however. The Eighties weren’t Holden’s world, but they are vividly recreated in a whirlwind ninety minutes of sight, sound, song; poetry and prose. The atmosphere and soundscape are spot on, as is Holden’s vocabulary that speaks of a Soho sadly long submerged under the waves of so-called gentrification. Holden is Jack (himself), working a decade ago at ‘Switchboard’; the LGBT+ telephone helpline. Left alone on a Saturday morning in the office he receives a call from Michael. The show becomes Michael’s story – a ‘gay veteran’ who survived, but not without the battle scars and the memories of loved ones lost on the way. We meet his saviour, the barmaid Catherine (Tabby Cat), Lady Lennox who charges just two chats a day for a year’s rent in a Soho townhouse; Fat Sandy, DJ Fingers the Mancunian nutcase, Jacob and Jason – the Nymphs of Greek Street, Polari Gordon and Slutty Dave. The fleshpots and drinking dens (most of which have been killed off, while HIV targeted many of its inhabitants) are brought to sparkling life with a sense of nostalgia that is sometimes overwhelming in Holden’s masterful retelling.
It is a portrayal that is faultless and fearless. Visually unchanging, Holden slips into each character with a finely tuned precision and incredible command of expression and accents. John Patrick Elliott’s live score throbs beneath the anecdotes in perfect harmony. Just as Holden creates the illusion of a crowded stage, Elliott is a one-man orchestra; eclectic, electric, and essential. Prema Mehta’s lighting is, indeed, another member of the cast: an equally evocative voice that helps tell the story.
It is the story of a man given a death sentence who decides to ‘go out with a bang’. Who won’t just ‘face the music’ but will play it. It is the story of a survivor. One who survived first the stigma, then the disease. “We carry on” he says. “What else can we do”. Okay, Holden may be too young for his words to carry the full weight with which they are burdened, but they certainly resonate at a time when we’re recovering from another epidemic.
“Cruise” hits hard. And plays hard too. Hedonistic joy dances with tragedy. Innocence and experience pass in the night. Holden encapsulates a lost generation without mourning it. He acknowledges his nostalgic yearning, and is ultimately grateful that he was ‘born too late’. And he does so with real respect. “Cruise” is an absolute joy. A celebration. A party not to be missed.