If anybody had told me Velvet would be one of the most exciting, engrossing and intelligent pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year, I wouldn’t have believed them. I adored director Craig Illot’s previous hit Smoke and Mirrors, but Velvet has been marketed as your standard touring adult circus-cabaret fusion; the quintessential “fun night out” inspired by the heyday of New York’s Studio 54 and starring Marcia Hines and indie singer-songwriter Brendan Maclean.
And on that promise, it delivers in spades. You get to see some impressive acrobatic acts, a wild and sexy striptease from Perle Noire and hear Marcia Hines and Brendan Maclean duet on the kitsch-tacular Barbra Streisand/Donna Summer classic No More Tears. There are stand-out performances from Noire and aerialist Emma Goh, and the two backing vocalists Chaska Halliday and Rechelle Mansour get a bright moment in the spotlight with Gloria Estafan’s Turn the Beat Around. The musical elements are kept in tight check by on stage DJ Joe Accaria and the set and costumes by James Browne are stylish, sexy and authentically 1970s.
But the circus spectacle and pumping disco soundtrack hold together a profound story of self discovery and a sexual awakening. This is a tribute to the beating heart of New York’s nightlife when disco was at its shaking, stomping and sexy best — a place where, apparently, anything goes.
Thrust into the centre of this sparkling, sequinned world is Maclean’s character — a repressed and uncertain youngster dressed up like a Mormon missionary from the suburbs. But from his opening number, If You Could Read My Mind, it’s clear the disco rhythms beat strongly in this one and, thankfully, he has a disco diva in Hines to guide him on his journey to full fabulousness.
This is a decidedly queer piece — from the hilarious subversion of Craig Reid’s (aka the incredible hula boy) act, to the aerial BDSM segment set to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, which sees Maclean’s formerly repressed character falling for a distorted version of his own image.
The relationship between Hines and Maclean is the very soul of this show. She’s the regal, nurturing diva that a young gay man needs — distant enough to worship but close enough to connect. It’s the perfect exploration of how music, art and culture can be the key to defining yourself and the age-old queer tradition of diva worship. The two singers are also in excellent vocal form — Maclean bringing a crystalline pop edge to the tracks and Hines sounding as glorious and powerful as she ever has, particularly on her 1977 hit You.
Things take a dark turn when Maclean performs a stripped back version of the Bee Gees hit Stayin’ Alive, self-accompanied on ukulele. As he sings a refrain that you’ve heard a hundred times but probably never really absorbed before — “life going nowhere, somebody help me” — it’s clear that the nightlife can never be a complete escape from the dangers and traumas of the world. It’s also a quiet reminder of just how much artists (particularly queer artists) give to their audience, and the cost that can have.
Velvet eventually becomes both a celebration of a time and place where anything seemed possible and a cry of grief that we no longer live there. Whether the disco era was actually as beautiful, liberated, loved-up and decadent as its presented in Velvet is really irrelevant. The gloss of nostalgia allows us to project our hopes into this world of adventure and openness.
But dear god, imagine if it could exist today …