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A Curious Calling: Abigail Collins

Xanthi Barker finds out that variety really is the spice of life

Written by . Published on September 26th 2011.

A Curious Calling: Abigail Collins

AT the foot of the Gherkin, where the walls are tall and shiny, there is a golden glow twinkling from behind the gates of Dunster Court. If you can make it through the maze toward the lights, you are welcomed into the sea of feather boas and ten-foot long eyelashes of Proud Cabaret. There are candles and table service, evening gowns and hen parties. A group of off-duty soldiers whoop from a purple booth. Corsets and hot pants are in charge of everything, serving cocktails and welcoming nipple-tasseled performers off the stage with dressing gowns and cheers. The lady compère sings music hall classics and announces the next act: Angel Rodriguez.  

Angel bursts onto stage to ‘All the Single Ladies’, her limbs flying, making seductive eye contact with every man in the front row and mock cat clawing every woman. This is not burlesque, but physical comedy with a flying kick. It is testament to her complete transformation that it takes me a few minutes to realise this is the same woman I interviewed a few days before. But it is hard to mistake her combination of total warmth and lightning quick delivery. So without further ado, I present to you: Abigail Collins. 

"I’ve heard other women say you can’t be sexy and funny. But that’s total rubbish. The Smack the Pony girls are funny and sexy, so is Tina Fey. It is possible. It’s like the last frontier in a way..."

Can you tell me a bit about your show?
I’m burlesque in the classical, Italian sense of the word burlesco, which means to parody or satire. Most of what I do is character comedy. Right now I perform as Katinka, the last remaining member of Chernobyll State Circus. There’s also Angel Rodriguez, who thinks she’s Beyoncé. Then there’s Peggy Sued, a washed-up, Las Vegas drunk who serves a cocktail on her head. I get two guys from the audience to take my clothes off while I sing ‘Fever’, then I climb all over them. I do the splits on their shoulders while I’m still singing. By the end of the number it’s chaos! It’s not pornography its corn-ography. It’s taking the piss. A lot of the stuff I do is satirical. It’s about pushing peoples’ buttons.

Do you embarrass them?
No! Women sometimes ask me, “Can you get my husband up and humiliate him?” or people ask me to use their friends and colleagues, and I won't do this. I'm there to get people to have a good time, to participate in the misbehaviour onstage – it's not about embarrassing people. What I do is meringue-like – it’s light, fluffy fun. Not to be taken too seriously – although Angus MacKechnie, director of Watch This Space at the National Theatre, says that he sees what I do as political and subversive because I’m a small, strong woman, bossing men around onstage.



Has anything ever gone wrong?
One time I pulled on a guy’s hair and his toupée came off. Half the audience saw it and half didn’t. He spent the rest of the show with his hand on his head. One time in Antwerp a guy got a massive erection. It was a street show – a benefit for Clowns Without Borders. He was lying on the floor and I was leaning over him, only touching his shoulders and his knees. I looked up and half the audience was cracking up. They’re more relaxed in Europe about that sort of thing. The other half was wondering what the laughter was about. I looked at the guy and he just shrugged, as if to say, “what do you expect?”


How long have you been performing for?
I was twenty-two when I finished my Masters. I played around with bits of street theatre. Then I was at Glastonbury Festival and met a man. He asked me to come away with him and we spent ten years traveling the world. We did schools, cabaret, telly. Then he ran off with a Polish dancer. It was classic showbiz. I’d always stood in his shadow, but the moment we broke up was when my career took off.

Do you like being back in the UK?
I love being back in London. I always wanted to perform in cabaret, ever since I was a little girl and saw Liza Minelli in Cabaret. As cabaret performers we’re given a freedom that’s so important. Street theatre festivals here in the UK can be fraught with regulations and concerns about health and safety. In Europe it's much more relaxed, and if there is controversy the festival directors feel proud, as if the work they are presenting has added cultural value. But UK cabaret is an entirely different animal. I feel so grateful that places like Proud Cabaret, Volupté and The Boom Boom Club exist and allow me to do what I do.



What do you think caused burlesque’s recent resurgence in popularity?
I don’t know. These things have their cycles. Live entertainment thrives in a recession. People like to go out and forget their troubles. There’s a whole glamour thing with burlesque – it really isn’t stripping. Hard to say why not, but you know the difference when you see it! With burlesque your sexuality, gender, age or class simply don't matter. People say that burlesque killed variety back in the ’50s, but it wasn’t just burlesque – the advent of TV and popular music changed the live entertainment landscape on an unprecedented scale. Promoters were left with empty venues because families and ordinary adult audiences weren’t going to the theatre and music hall anymore, so burlesque was a way to keep their venues open. But now the resurgence of burlesque has meant that variety has got a second wind. I’m eternally grateful because I wouldn’t be working without it.


Do you think it gives a kind of balance to chart music culture and modern glamour – with tiny models and airbrushed faces?
It’s a very interesting time for feminism. Things are so extreme, with women being covered up from head to toe, or wearing a slither of a skirt and skyscraper high heels. I think however you want to look is fine, as long as it’s your choice. That’s what burlesque is about – choice. And that it’s OK to be sexy! The sexy thing became a dirty word for such a long time. If a woman wants to dress up, then don’t crucify her for it. I’ve heard other women say you can’t be sexy and funny. But that’s total rubbish. The Smack the Pony girls are funny and sexy, so is Tina Fey. It is possible. It’s like the last frontier in a way – can you be sexy, smart and funny?

Maybe it’s men trying to hold onto one last thing. You can be this and this but not all of them. You can’t be funny, funny is ours!
I don't go in for man bashing, but I guess it's quite a difficult time to be man. Can you hold a door open for a lady or will you be called a sexist twat? Perhaps some men are scared? A lot of the study I did with my Bachelors and Masters degrees was informed by carnival iconography, about turning the world on its head. And this is something that echoes in my work – I am literally ‘woman on top’ as I climb over my male volunteers. In medieval churches, underneath the seats, there’d be carved all sorts of profane acts, like women giving the devil fellatio. In carnival time, the world was turned upside down – the priest would run around naked, the lord of the manor would give up his seat and a pauper would parade around like a lord. It was a social release. In a way, that’s what cabaret does. It provides a release of pressure.



To read about more curious callings, please click here

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