Only in New York City is it acceptable to mash a Gothic poet with a strip act and fool people in to thinking it’s some sort of patriotic pairing, as though it has reached the same level of acceptability as fish and chips, salt and vinegar or Friday morning and a huge hangover.
Rewind to last Christmas. It’s gone 10pm, and it’s snowing in En Why Cee (it’s December; of course it’s snowing). I’m walking on the Bowery in Downtown, and have been catching up over a steak dinner with my Manhattanite university mate. Not that I want to name drop or anything but she’s an actress and has been on wildly successful serial Gossip Girl. We live in some bizarre parallel world where she tells me she is the hand model for a very serious actress on the show and I tell her I spent part of the last week pilfering sugar sachets into my handbag at an oil and gas conference. But somehow we are friends and we’ve just had a cosy tête-à-tête (for four).
After squealing through three courses plus coffee, getting more and more happy on a bottle of Sauternes, reminiscing over the good ol’ days, we are too intoxicated on New York spirit to go home (for her and her beau, the Upper East Side, naturally – while I’m staying at the trendy boutique hotel Soho Grand off Canal Street).
“Let’s see a show,” my really-very-famous- soap-actor friend says indulgently. Ghastly visions of us dropping $60 on a ticket to Wicked or Rent and then promptly falling asleep on each other go through my head. Seconds later, she’s plugged in our location on her phone and an
app has suggested a show two blocks away that starts in 10 minutes. Oh, serendipity – New York
is so much better at late-night fun than London. The only thing that starts after 10pm here is the firing up of the deep fat fryers in chicken shops.
And so, we find ourselves in a boxy theatre set in a rundown brownstone in Lower Manhattan. But what are we watching, you might ask? For a mere $15 apiece, it’s the Edgar Allan Poe Burlesque Show hosted by the man himself (even though he died in 1849). Yes, hours of listening to the 19th century Gothic poet and watching women seductively strip to his very sexy words about, well, a big black bird.
We sit, giggling, in the darkness at the back. I buy us a round of Cokes – I think we need to sober up to watch this – and settle into the gummy velour seats. The (female) host swaggers on stage, dressed quasi-convincingly as Poe himself, with a bottle of Pernod absinthe from which she / he swigs liberally. (Absinthe is to play a starring role in the show: “it’s sponsored by Pernod”, the host states drunkenly as she gets more and more lashed.) Oh, and there’s a plastic raven perched on her right shoulder.
The show is essentially a GCSE English literature module thrown together with nakedness. It’s totally unsexy, and weirder than your creepy uncle that sits at the back of every family wedding until the DJ plays Cliff Richard. My super-well-known actress mate describes an abrasive rendition of Pit and Pendulum as “really horrible and screechy”, which in the context of what is to come, is a glowing recommendation.
Next, some dude waves himself about in front of a theremin, which produces sounds so scratchy it could make your ears bleed and, just perhaps, cause Poe to rise from the ground. But the real raison d’etre of the show is the performance of the Raven – smashed ‘Edgar’ runs through the poem recital, her arse cheeks wobbling as she booms “Nevermore!” to the audience, absinthe distiller swinging.
Finishing the performance with a giant smash of the Pernod bottle, the hostess – sorry, Edgar Allan Poe himself – ominously declares that the party continues “until late” in the scuzzy bar adjacent. It’s quite clear I’m way too vanilla for this. My very-ordinary boyfriend and I flag a cab and slide about on the leather, dazed by the sheer amount of flesh married with a big black bird. Less “Nevermore!”, more never again.