Saturday, 16 April 2016

Dusty at the boutique, our favourite trans prozzie, lesbians through history, a gay poem and a moment of mourning for the death of old Soho

[I'm not quite so old as to remember the pub like this]

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Whatever happened to The Theatre Bar? Friendly, reasonably-priced, old-fashioned, comfortable - the only gay venue in London where you could hear the likes of Ethel Merman, Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey, John Barrowman, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Dorothy Squires and innumerable "songs from the shows" being played night after night? The place where we first met all those characters from the theatre world such as our favourite roller-skating drag queen Eb-on-knee; the artiste soon to be known as Mrs Moore; stage-hands and wig-makers; and even Graham Norton? The place where I won (singlehandedly) the pub music quiz? Whatever happened to our hosts Wezley (aka Cassidy Connors), or Rupert or Graeme? Or regulars Tom, Roddy and Marc? Long gone, I'm afraid. The Theatre Bar closed when its "mother-ship" downstairs the West Central pub (formerly the White Bear or Polar Bear, now known as Ku Bar) disappeared for a while and "went straight". More's the pity.

Why the reminiscing? Well, the new incarnation of what was formerly the West End's campest bar is called Light Lounge, and this was the chosen venue for "London's peerless gay literary salon" Polari's much-vaunted "return to its Soho roots", that I managed (painfully) to stagger along to on Monday. As a location for such an event it is most definitely found wanting. Gone is any semblance of the illustrious revelry that marked out this most historic (and perhaps slightly seedy) of corners in Soho/Chinatown, in favour of shiny surfaces and (the nowadays ubiquitous) low banquette seating. Gone is any notion of an affordable night out, in favour of drinks at £9 a pop - cocktails are, no matter how "fancily" packaged, only tiny measures of booze, and don't last long; and the venue's cider (or beer) is served in miniscule bottles for the same price as a pint everywhere else in the real world, including the Ku Bar downstairs. Ambience? Clinical. Comfort? Negligible. Toilets? Incomprehensibly awkward [flush behind the seat? How very British Rail.] Value for money? Ludicrous.

Worst of all, many of the punters - some Polari regulars (including me, Paul, little Tony, Bryanne and Simon, as well as Anny, Jayne, Tanyth and chums), and some newbies - who were crammed into the confines of the seating area couldn't even see the evening's readers. Shame, because they were worth seeing (as well as listening to, of course). Still, the glittering environs made a great backdrop for the bods at cable channel London Live, who were there (along with free gay mag Boyz) to cover the evening...

Opening the show was a "safe pair of hands" for any Polari evening, in any venue - the utterly marvellous VG (Val) Lee. She read from her soon-to-be-published new novel Mr Oliver's Object of Desire, a funny and insightful exposé of the clashing values of a boutique owner with the rapidly-changing world of late 60s/early 70s London, as he finds himself disappointed that his chosen "celebrities" for his shop's grand opening the Beverley Sisters were substituted at the last moment by some "new whipper-snapper" of a singer (bewilderingly popular with "the girls", to his chagrin) Miss Dusty Springfield...

Concluding with a crowd-pleasing "Deirdre" story, Val had the audience suitably "warmed up". Here is the lady herself, in conversation with the London Live talking head, about Polari and the London Book & Screen Week, of which this evening was a part:

No sooner had VG finished, it was time for a break. This, we surmised, was to give sufficient time for people to empty their credit cards behind the bar, so we went for a fag out the back.

The lovely Alexis "Lexi" Gregory, Soho stalwart himself (we first met when he was "bar whore" at another deceased venue BarCode), read us his first performance piece Through the Wilderness, about a Madonna-obsessed, half-Italian, half-Greek gay kid growing up in the suburbs of 1980s North West London dreaming of becoming an actor. Unsurprisingly, he revealed, it is autobiographical.

He also treated us to an extract from his latest play, the utterly marvellous Slap (that John-John and I went to see in Stratford last year), which completely captivated the audience, needless to say!

Here's Lexi chatting about it on London Live:

Another break. Another over-priced drink.

Our next reader Diana Souhami is a writer of prodigious talents - in addition to the lesbian biographies for which she is most famous, she curated an exhibition on women's rights for the British Council that travelled worldwide, she has also written about the real-life Robinson Crusoe, an obscure 1940s murder, the "Bounty" mutineers and Leon Bakst's panels on the fable of Sleeping Beauty that were commissioned by the Rothschilds. Whew.

However, for Monday's audience, it was lesbians all the way - as Ms Souhami took us on a tour through her various works about painter Hannah Gluckstein ("Gluck") and her aristocratic lovers (including famed floral artiste Constance Spry), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Mrs Alice Keppel's daughter Violet Trefusis (lover of Vita Sackville-West) and the Sapphic world of inter-War Paris with Romaine Brooks and Natalie Barney. This was an engrossing and entertaining journey, indeed - her wealth of research is impressive. Loved it.

Another break. Another fag.

Headlining this unusually disjointed Polari evening was the cute Keith Jarrett, poet and performance artist. Not to be outdone by Lexi's "autobiographical work", he gave us a selection of pieces about his own life and experiences being brought up as a budding gay boy in a God-fearing Jamaican community, culminating this one - A Gay Poem:

He wowed the crowd, that's for certain.

And, of course, the last word goes to Mr Burston...

Loved the speakers, love Polari. Thankfully the next one is back somewhere sensible - the South Bank - on 25th April (twice in a month? We are spoiled...) featuring Juno Dawson, Will Davis, Rachel B Glaser, Mark Lock, and the long-overdue return of our fave Rebecca Chance!

I can't wait!



  1. It was a great way to spend a Monday evening, and during *happy hour* I managed to get 4 cocktails for £20, which I paced out over the whole evening but the last one was more than 2 hours old by the time I drank it.
    The readers were all very strong but I'm glad you added photos as I didn't see any of them reading on the night x

    1. Well, I did place myself and my broken foot as close as I could to get those photos! Jx

  2. Sounds like a good night content wise, but an odd venue. Polari has always adapted to different venues. It keeps it fresh. I'm looking forward to the 25th.


    1. I am looking forward to it too... Jx

  3. Not familiar with the venue but I do know what your saying about these haunts being gone. So many for us are gone too. But we had a scare a few mouths ago when our New Hope staple, The Raven, (where we just saw the wonderful Miss Hope Springs tickle the ivories.....fabulous- preform)was put on the market. The community shuddered in fear. Luckily the new owners will keep the place run the same and keep the traditions alive. Many of New Hopes' notable personalities, who took residence here at some time or other like Odette Myrtil, Dorothy Parker, Ted Tally, and Winter Ave Zoli not to mention frequent stop byers, Oscar Hammerstein, all took some sip at the estalisment at one of it's names, either Le Camp or the Raven. The Raven is known for it's camp shows and even more eccentric crowd, wonderful cabaret, still cheap drinks served in heavy old fashions, and famous happy hour with mind altering drinks, and lovely summertime pool frolics, complete with some wide brim hat wearing queens. One afternoon, I met a very odd, but entertaining guy, who's elevator was not quite reaching the top. I found out he had been a fixture at 54 and was one of Andy Warhol's click. Some wonderful stories he had. With the Bucks County Playhouse right up the road, and NYC only less then an hour, one never knows who may pop in for a stiffener. I was out of town on vacation once, only to find the lovely, but late Elaine Strich showed up, well lit, and sang some tunes with the boys. On Saturdays nights, still, in the Oak Bar, they have a grand piano, where the player and the all the patrons all sing show tunes till around 1AM!!!! The new owners have been very keen about it's history and while they are doing some refurbishing, they are keeping the changes in step with the current interior. I was amazed at the remodel. It looks as if the changes were always there. It is so nice to see they are letting these traditions alive, but I worry about what will happen when us middle aged and older folk are gone. When the youngins come they definitely have a good time, but also get to learn and experience what so few can't find anymore. It is definitely my beloved Raven for sure. I loved your post here and can most certainly relate to what you have said. I never thought of being a dying breed.

    1. Amen, sister! We've mourned so many lost gay venues here over the last decade or so, it is heartening to hear a success story every now and again. Gentrification can't get them all, surely? Jx

    2. Dear Jon, have only just read your blog as my email refused to function. You write about the Polari events so well with true warmth for the performers. Thank you so much for the lovely comments particularly those directed at me. I am sorry that it was a difficult venue and perhaps next time the seating could be better arranged. I think Tony is on to the right way with buying drinks in bulk although no drink tastes as it should when left to stand for two hours. If I am at the next one and I probably will be, do let me treat you to your chosen tipple! All best, Val X

    3. Thanks, Val. I did enjoy your pieces (as always!) - and I'm sure Polari's "Soho adventures" will go from strength to strength, given time. See you at the next one! Jx


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