Joyce McMillan: variety shows are set to return

Allan Stewart. Picture: Jon Savage

Allan Stewart. Picture: Jon Savage

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For four nights last week, the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh was alive with the sound of laughter, applause, and the kind of free-flowing, easy-going audience participation that many cutting-edge theatre companies would love to achieve, if only they knew how.

The show was Allan Stewart’s Big Big Variety Show, put together by the Dame-playing star of the King’s annual pantomime, with his two regular panto sidekicks, Edinburgh radio star Grant Stott and Scottish comedy genius Andy Gray.

The show featured some straight singing by Stewart, and several comic interludes featuring the three stars. There was also a fine six-piece onstage band, and a series of guest star acts, including world-class ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, Britain’s Got Talent star Edward Reid – who soon had the audience singing Do-Re-Me from The Sound Of Music – and six gorgeous Andrews-Sisters-style retro singers called The Tootsie Rollers.

There’s no denying that the show had its dodgy moments, notably the occasional Seventies-style compulsion to stray into the realms of old-fashioned sexism and foreigner-bashing jokes. On the whole, though, it was a hugely enjoyable evening, enlivened by some superbly surreal comic sequences (it was an object lesson in comedy to watch Gray, Stott and Stewart turn a tired joke about Highland folk-singers into a hilarious meditation on what it is to have a Wee Robbie or a Big Robbie in your life), and some impressive displays of skill and glamour by the visiting acts, as well as by Stewart’s rousing and immensely clever spoof version of Bohemian Rhapsody, based on the tragic story of Edinburgh’s trams.

All of which, given the audience’s evident enjoyment, raises questions about why the variety tradition – outside panto – ever disappeared so completely from our stages, and whether it might be about to experience a revival. Perhaps it was inevitable that the tradition of live stage variety would suffer decades of decline, after so many of its great stars switched to television in the 1950s and 60s, and began to use up comic material at the rate of an entire script each week. Now, though, the great days of television variety are long gone; The Billy Cotton Band Show and Sunday Night At The London Palladium are fading memories, and the boom in stand-up comedy, which began in the 1980s, has not often been linked to a wider entertainment tradition.

Yet the appetite for live entertainment has been booming in recent years, with the rise of a new and often spectacular generation of burlesque artists and acrobats, as well as a breathtaking range of musical acts. In hard times, audiences always long for a lighthearted night out, full of glamour, spectacle and humour; and it seems crazy that Britain’s big Edwardian theatres, built for exactly this kind of entertainment, have not yet engineered a creative collision between the variety tradition so loved by popular audiences, and a new generation of artists who are often still plying their trade mainly in Fringe venues, or in Spiegeltents across the festivals of the world.

The success of Allan Stewart’s Big Big Variety Show suggests, though, that moment of rediscovery could be approaching. There’s no doubt any revived variety circuit for the 21st century would have to distance itself from some of the sleazier aspects of the old variety world, both in its overall ethos and in its comic material.

Yet there is no shortage of radical talent out there, in the contemporary entertainment world, waiting to reach out to the kind of popular audience that rolls up at the Edinburgh King’s. And so long as the level of skill is high, the humour sharp and contemporary, the music grand, and the glamour unashamed and gorgeous, then there’s no reason why the variety tradition can’t shake off its dust-sheets; and re-emerge as glittering and brilliant as ever, to give hard-pressed 21st century audiences the kind of good night out they crave, and deserve.

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