Torch Singers Supreme! Sasha Selavie reviews.

Torch singers

Sasha Selavie reviews two extravagant cabaret shows

What’s the pure essence of being gay? Do you have to truly, madly, deeply have to lust after cock, and have it unconsciously dominating every waking moment, dream and desire? Er…not exactly, darlings! See, gay sexuality has a ferociously extravagant emotional context, the underlying setting for dedicated dick devotion, an extravagance straight pop groups shamelessly mimic to spice up
their acts!

Which is where ABC – one of the most iconic, 1980s pop bands ever – enter the equation. If not gay themselves, but touched by the soaring shadow of Bowie, they immediately understood the crucial importance of strip-mining their inner, Norma Desmond drama queens. Who, after all, wants dull-as-piss, modern pop-stars, with the mass dress sense of Primark rejects? True, classic pop has to be far larger than life, to bleed, puke and finally die for us with the cliff-hanging, tabloid fury of Princess Di! Otherwise, why bother? Who needs dumb, interchangeable grime singers with all the riveting, non-existent glamour of a used condom?

So, thank Jesus and his hopping harlots for the still-dizzying, Liberace aplomb of ABC. Furiously hi-jacking the homoerotic glamour of the most potent pop icon ever – Elvis ’56, resplendent in gold lamé jacket – singer Martin Fry’s worshipping at the radioactive hard-on of the American Dream! And he’s bringing a fabulous, irresistible offering to the ghostly altar of dear, dead Elvis – ABC’s Lexicon of Love album, served complete and smokingly hot. An exquisite, post-modern masterclass in melodrama, easily dwarfing Cole Porter and Noel Coward, Lexicon gets a soaring, amyl nitrate makeover from tonight’s guests, the South Bank Orchestra.

Does that notion sound like pure, sonic blasphemy, classical music straitjacketing and poisoning pop? Get real – it worked for the Beatles, and shrewdly, like tonal transvestites, ABC slip a gorgeous, orchestral drag over gawky pop bones and full-on, faux-gay emoting. Sure, it’s an uneasy marriage, but the once sniffy world of classical music is now desperate to embrace pop, once seen as its snotty, attention deficit, talentless cousin!


Tough – this particular musical marriage works big-time, with more irresistibly inviting hooks than a masochist’s orgy! Instantly, you’re reliving your first teenage wank to boyband-idol paradise, to a soundscape of galloping, spaghetti-western guitars, and Fry’s slick, bourbon-smooth, crooning heartache.
   And surely, it’s unnecessary to list songs, but Shoot that Poison Arrow, The Look of Love and more, are thrillingly reworked as exhaustive angst for the ages. Exiting, we’re left with an indelible image of Martin Fry as a pouting, Elvis clone, all bee-stung lips and prehensile pelvis, more tempting than Gemma Arterton with a penis! And that’s ABC in a nutshell – Elvis produced by Phil Spector soundtracking James Bond, all overblown glamour to die for!

Still, glamour – like royalty – comes in increasingly rarefied circles of excellence, and currently, London’s cabaret throne is undeniably occupied by super-svelte fascinatrix, Holly Penfield. Quite justifiably, she’s renowned for pleasuring helplessly besotted listeners – of both sexes – to the brink of a gloriously erotic death, like a Marlene Dietrich radiating Viagra! Forget the strident, fog-horn fireworks of Adele, or the tepid, sub-orgasmic burblings of Rihanna – Holly has a shockingly exciting emotional finesse effortlessly beyond screamingly superficial divas. Don’t ever expect crass, passionate overkill from Holly – instead, she breathtakingly fillets mingled layers of loss, desire and shame from even the most familiar standards.

Sure, Holly’s current repertoire explores torch songs, jazz standards and her own, deliriously exotic compositions, but she’s in a different league entirely from tired tribute queens torturing undemanding ears. They, at best, barely emulate, channelling pale streams of anorexic passion, but Holly stunningly recreates, reinvigorating torch songs with the simmering ache of Peggy Lee or Sarah Vaughan. Once seen, she’s completely unforgettable, singing with an incandescent, emotional empathy that gives even Over the Rainbow profound, Shakespearean depths undreamt of by Judy Garland or Eva Cassidy. So, why bother with wannabees? Let Holly be your dream diva, so you don’t have to dream alone!

Torch singers supreme!

• ABC & Kid Creole & the Coconuts tour November 2017.