This site now acts as an archive only. For the latest news, opinion, blogs and listings on disability arts and culture visit disabilityarts.online.

Disability Arts Online

> > > Hastings Storytelling Festival: The Velvet Curtain

22 November 2013

Produced by 18 Hours for the Hastings Storytelling Festival The Velvet Curtain featured an evening of Adult-only stories with a Burlesque twist with performers Penny Pepper, Liz Bentley, Caroline Smith AKA Mertle Merman and Crimson Skye. Esther Fox was there as the curtain parted to reveal four mistresses of the titillating tale.

As a lapsed visual artist and a burlesque virgin, attending this event promised to take me on a journey exploring unfamiliar terrain.  We were told on Facebook “The Velvet Curtain parts to reveal four mistresses of the titillating tale. Our storytellers will tantalise, tease, and entwine you in their witty, sexy and darkly humorous tales during four hours of back-to-back entertainment.” 

Therefore it was with slight trepidation that I set out under a full moon to attend a marathon of potential awkwardness.  Not because I am a prude or easily shocked; (my father started his jazz drumming career in a strip club in the 1960’s and I have spent many an hour in life-drawing classes) more that I don’t usually find this type of entertainment very interesting or insightful.

The event produced by 18 Hours for the Hastings Storytelling Festival, was held at the extremely appropriate and surprisingly wheelchair accessible venue, The Royal Victoria Hotel. This slightly faded but grand seafront Victorian hotel lent itself perfectly to the event, transforming into a glamorous and seductive backdrop for the evening. 

The scene was set as we were greeted by women wearing peacock feather headdresses, sequined hot pants and heavily embroidered corsets. The interest for me was to see how they were going to combine the burlesque with the story telling. Unfortunately I am not convinced most of the acts succeeded in this objective.

Crimson Sky was our host for the evening – introducing the mistresses in a thick Texan accent. As the evening progressed she wore less and less and became more and more ‘threatening’ towards the audience, as a stereotypical psychopathic ex-lover. At one point she appeared dressed in only a straight-jacket and mask, producing a fake severed head from a bag whilst singing Patsy Clines 'Crazy'.  This was one of those awkward moments for me.

So on to the mistress story tellers. I have a preconception of what I understand story-telling to be and performance art, isn’t it.  The only mistress who I felt really embraced this role was Penny Pepper. She was also the main reason why I attended.

I found myself being surprisingly captivated by Penny's erotic tales of forbidden doctor patient relationships or obsessions over nipples and dalliances in store cupboards. The eloquence and immediacy of her language ensured the audience was transfixed by the tales. Billed as having a “twinkle in her voice” this was certainly apt and she performed the pieces as a true pro. Penny for me had delivered on the story telling with a burlesque twist, brilliantly. 

Mandy Curtis, Director of 18 hours has a reputation for programming artists and performers from diverse backgrounds. I asked her to explain her rational as to why she felt it was important to showcase disabled performers alongside non-disabled artists:

“I have been to Festivals in the past where all the performers were disabled people and as a consequence they performed to audiences of predominantly disabled people. I wanted to encourage new audiences to see this work and I approached Penny because of her reputation as a spoken word artist who works in this field”. 

The audience was a mixed and appreciative one and perceivably I think it is unlikely that many of the people attending would have deliberately sought out the work of Penny Pepper if this had been a purely Disability arts event.

Caroline Smith aka Mertle Merman combined cooking and cleaning tasks with burlesque performance art - resulting in a puff pastry ‘muff pie’ being pulled out of a microwave as the timer pinged. This was the most unusual cookery display I have witnessed and yes, strapping egg poachers to your bosoms meets the burlesque brief, but the extent of the story-telling was rather limited, sharing anonymous eating secrets with the audience. 

Liz Bentley – billed as ‘one of the quirkiest voices on the UK’s spoken word scene’ - delivered a random and eclectic mix of one liners and short stanzas on topics such as not getting a baby-sitter, games consuls and Rolf Harris – all accompanied with various sounds on a Casio keyboard. 

The evening ended on a musical note with singer Rachel McCarron and Steve Le Squeeze – perhaps more cabaret than Burlesque but again a hit with the audience.  So to conclude, a pleasant surprise for me in relation to Penny’s work but I am not sure we really got story-telling with a twist of Burlesque as there were just not enough ‘titillating tales’ for me.