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Hussey’s Riot: La Clique / Brett Haylock

In a transformation both spiritual and physical the elite cabaret La Clique have landed in London, bringing variety back to the Hippodrome - a venue synonymous with the West End at its least discerning. Patrick Hussey meets the man behind the action, the fellow brushing the sparks from his shoulders – Brett Haylock.

A man stands in a shower of sparks, watching the frantic preparations around him. Above him someone is sawing through a gold railing sending the molten nicks hither and thither in the dark bowl of the Hippodrome's auditorium. I look around - mirrors, black carpets, still disco balls hang from the ceiling. This place is still a nightclub but change is coming, the Hippodrome is being rebuilt and re-branded, taken back to its roots as a performance venue. No more alco-pops, no more Essex hens, no more rohypnol induced affairs in sticky corners.

Brett Haylock walks over and beckons me to follow him into the top balcony. From our seats on a dark shelf we peer through the glass bannister and look down at the stage. As tour leader for La Clique, a group that can be seen as the SWAT team of cabaret, he surely has one of the most exciting, enviable jobs on earth. Before us though is the practical side of the task. Men crawl around connecting wires, shifting the big red trampoline that stands in the centre.

For a moment I am haunted by a distant, teenage memory of my one and only previous visit to the Hippodrome. Brett looks at me as I zone out, visions of a queue drowning in hair gel turns my stomach and I can't hold back, I've been here before I tell him.

'O yes?' his blue eyes lift. 'Some dodgy R'n'B night was it?' He asks in a gentle Aussie accent, reading my traumatised mind.

'I know what you mean, I lived in London for a while and when the opportunity came up for us to perform here I thought no way, it can never work. Too big, no intimacy, all wrong'.

We look down at where the stage is being erected, seeing the club converting before our eyes.

'But I came to take a look and started falling for the place. Its got an amazing history.'

He's right. What most people think of as the West End's most dire cheese hole, the Hippodrome actually has a fascinating, showbiz past. Designed by Frank Matcham, the leading theatre designer of the building boom in the early 1900s it was originally a circus and variety venue and even included a 100,000 gallon water tank for seals to rocket around in. It has even seen high culture, Swan Lake for instance had its British premiere there in 1910. Seals and ballet? Who knew?

Brett smiles and says 'I walked in and fell in love with the place, I really like we're helping to bring it back to what it was.'

Formed five years ago for the Edinburgh fringe La Clique have become the world's leading cabaret act, the perfect choice to spearhead the Hippodrome's rebirth. I ask Brett about the ride he's been on with La Clique since it was formed in 2004.

'I had done a lot of work programming cabaret tours and in particular with the Great Spiegeltent. I knew about all these great acts but they didn't have a home, an identity that would allow them to perform under one roof. La Clique was formed out of that need and in 2004 we stormed the Fringe.'

'Since then its just got bigger and faster, we've gone round the world four times and can pick where we go next. London came up a few times but the timing or venue wasn't right. Now we've got the perfect space and we're thrilled to be here.'

London should be thrilled to have them too. Wherever they have gone La Clique have had absolutely rave reviews. One image of their current performer David O'Mer or 'Bath Boy' is all over the web and it seems people can't get enough.

'What's the secret? I ask him.

'Two things.' he says. 'First I've been doing this a long time. I know what people want and I know how to deliver it. Our acts are all roughly 8 minutes long and performed in an intimate space, people are right next to the action, they can see every bead of sweat.'

'Secondly these acts are the best of the best, in travelling the world we have picked up the cream of performers. Simple as that, we hone and concentrate their acts so they always deliver. I haven't missed a Clique show in the five years I have been doing this because there is always something new to look at, something you don't expect that makes me chuckle. We've taken an age-old variety format and updated it for the times. Sexier, funnier, more daring.'

He does it in a nice way, this regurgitation of the La Clique press release. Isn't there something else though I ask? Variety and cabaret are certainly going through a renaissance and I wonder if that is because there is something more 'real' about it when compared to other forms of entertainment. Brett pauses then answers.

'I think you've hit the nail on the head. In this digital age I think people appreciate being close to a performance, you can see the work and the excellence each performer brings. They're real people doing extraordinary things.'

That is certainly true. Brett tells me many of the acts La Clique works with came from fetish clubs or the street; they cut their teeth in what he himself describes as 'chaotic, drunken environments.' Is it possible the audience loves that too? The hint of dirt that clings to these performers?

Something about that sense of the La Clique being a missile not just from the fringes of the performing arts but also of society seems crucial. To the public La Clique's performers must seem like super heroes. They fly, they swallow metal, they strip without shame. They represent, perhaps subliminally, the triumph of the Alternative. They represent not just the dysfunctional cache of the counterculture but show it can be fused with triumphal, mainstream success.

Whatever the case the crowds and the press love it. One almost hysterical quote from The Scotsman instructs 'Do whatever it takes to get a front row ticket.' Does Brett have a favourite performer? Touring luminaries currently include 'every girl and boy's wet dream' David O'Mer, Miss Behave the world's premiere female sword swallower and of course Ursula Martinez who performs a unique striptease with her infamous 'disappearing' hanky.

'It would be like naming a favourite child.' he says grinning uncomfortably. He mentions the word family a lot when talking about La Clique. They are obviously a close-knit bunch.

'David is remarkable of course. The media love that one photo of him flicking his hair but his act is incredible, the acrobatics of it. He lifts himself all round the bath on cables like he is flying, very graceful and of course very sexy! It's the tight jeans, and the water; it seems to whip people up. Davis is from Berlin but he has broken hearts in at least 7 languages! At the end of the act we've had all sorts happen, including women throwing themselves in his the bath.'

'Yulia Pikhtina is another one who has left a trail of broken hearts wherever we go, she's probably the best Hula Hoop act in the world and I'm very proud of Mario 'Queen of the Circus'. We found him performing on the streets of Barcelona and he has become a real cult. People are opening up Facebook groups about him.'

With that the interview must end. There are so many questions I want to ask. What on earth is it like being on a tour bus with these kind of people? Do they watch DVDs like everyone else or on motorways do they roller skate behind? Wearing only glitter, attached by long feather boas I picture them waving to entranced drivers.

Reality asserts itself as someone drops a heavy box onto the stage. Brett looks down at the chaos and someone cries out to him. Time to go. He leads me away down the slivery steps, past a mirrored bar lined with champagne bottles and suddenly opens a door in the Hippodrome's black wall. There is the average street and average passers by. With some regret I shake his hand and step out of La Clique.

La Clique at the London Hippodrome runs until 1st Feb 2009. The cast includes Captain Frodo, Ursula Martinez, David O’Mer, Yulia Pikhting, The English Gents, Miss Behave, Decadanse, and Mario Queen of the Circus – and more!

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