Slide, Sydney, March 7
SHAY Stafford is beautiful of course. There’s not a lot of call for showgirls who aren’t well above average in the face and figure stakes. She’s smart and funny too – an example of how life’s bounty can be quite unfairly distributed. But she worked very hard to get where she got, and when she got there, she kept on working hard.
There is Paris: first at the Moulin Rouge and then the Lido, bywords for a very particular kind of glamour that involves plenty of bling and spectacle, well-honed variety acts, a slightly naughty atmosphere and streams and streams of lovely women. Brisbane born and raised Stafford was one of those for more than a decade. Still is, if Memoirs of a Showgirl is any guide. Something that started as a one-off is steadily gaining traction as a regular event.
For those watching from the front, being a showgirl may not appear all that difficult. You dress up (or, more accurately, down) in a scanty confection of feathers, beads and sequins, swirl around a bit, and smile. After which you go to a fancy drinking establishment where you are whisked to the front of the queue and treated with much reverence, which is what Paris showgirls can confidently expect.
This picture is true, although only up to a point. You try balancing towering headdresses and hefty backpacks while high-kicking in high heels as you go up and down staircases, two shows a night, six nights a week. Not to mention the backstage drama associated with a whole lot of performers of different nationalities, all with their own ambitions.
Stafford took it all in her stride and had a great time, and then it seemed a good idea to come back home. She had married journalist Bryce Corbett – an Australian she met in Paris, wouldn’t you know it – and had two children. Then came her book, Memoirs of a Showgirl (Hachette, 2010), and the show of the same name. Yes, it’s pretty clear Stafford has plenty of showgirl left in her.
It’s early March and we’re at cabaret venue Slide in Oxford St, Sydney, where Stafford and Corbett are presenting Memoirs of a Showgirl. This time around there are only two performances, but Stafford and Corbett have nevertheless pulled together a supporting cast of six, old friends from the business who include an aerialist, a singer, musician and back-up dancers for Stafford. Corbett cheerfully acts as MC and is plainly proud as punch of his wife, who is warm, unaffected, and incredibly wholesome. She positively radiates humour, health and an appreciation for her good fortune, qualities that may perhaps be attributed to her 1980s upbringing in Brisbane.
The stage area is small and the technical resources slender, but never mind. What we’re going to get is a diminutive version of a Lido show. Well, think of a word that indicates something even smaller, and that will be closer to the reality.
For some reason I find this extremely touching.
I’d actually seen Stafford in a show at the Lido back in 2005 – it was completely by chance, a last-minute thing – and marvelled at the scale of the enterprise. Millions of euros are spent on productions that are expected to run for years. Here in Darlinghurst we’re quite a way from that opulence but Stafford and Corbett manage to give a fair idea of how the Paris shows are constructed – with one important exception. There’s no “nude line” here.
It’s not full nudity at the Lido. Some dancers perform topless, in a statuesque, “don’t touch” kind of way, but at Slide the audience only gets to hear about it. “If you’re going to join the nude line, I’ll need to see you topless,” the ballet mistress, Janet, told Stafford when she went for her audition at the Moulin Rouge all those years ago. “Smashing,” was Janet’s verdict, and Stafford was in.
Needless to say Stafford doesn’t relive that moment in full in Memoirs of a Showgirl. It’s a very Paris thing, this veneration of the female form where the reveal isn’t considered sleazy nor the admiration considered sexist. To give some idea of how it works Stafford does do a couple of dance numbers in costumes long on sequins and short on coverage, and looks, well, absolutely smashing.
In between, Paige Walker does an aerial act on the silken ropes, Ben Palumbo sings and strips, in a jocular manner, to red boxer shorts and Michael Bouroukas plays the piano accordion. A former colleague of Stafford’s at the Lido, Sara Dobson, dances and smiles regally, as cool and lovely as if back in Paris at a big show instead of being part of this sweet memory piece.
There have been performances in Sydney and Brisbane – 14 in all – but momentum seems to be building for “accidental theatrical producers” Stafford and Corbett, as he describes them. Melbourne, Adelaide and regional Australia may be in the offing as well as a more regular Sydney presence.
Memoirs of a Showgirl returns to Slide in Sydney on July 26 and in October.