Helen's in the spotlight
Suffolk cabaret performer Helen Spall met with Arts Editor Andrew Clarke on a flying back home to Suffolk.
Suffolk cabaret performer Helen Spall met with Arts Editor Andrew Clarke on a flying back home to Suffolk. She engaged him with tales of feathers, finery nipple tassels and… Simon Cowell.
Helen Spall is pleased to be back in Suffolk. The Riverside Theatre in Woodbridge is the closest thing she has to a second home. She has spent a good proportion of her young life there, working both onstage and off.
There has never been any doubt in her mind that she would be involved in the theatre or showbusiness in some way.
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Last year Helen and her performing company, Caburlesque, took the nation by storm and reached the finals on Britain's Got Talent.
The cabaret/burlesque troupe specialises in glamour with a barely concealed aura of naughtiness lurking just beneath the surface. Helen - part of the Spall showbiz dynasty - says that contradiction is at the heart of what makes the act work. She believes that the heart of Caburlesque is something she calls retro-sophistication.
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It combines the best of classic cabaret, revue and variety with some slick 21st century presentation and production values. It marries the best of the old with the best of the new.
Helen says she hopes to create an eye-popping spectacular which conjures up the sexy, naughty-but-nice era of The Windmill while not straying into the cheap and the tacky.
“It's an art form which is both sophisticated and not afraid to tantalise, tease and show a little flesh,” she says with a laugh. “It's sequins, stockings, feathers and finery - and if you are quick a nipple tassel or two.”
Last weekend Helen returned to Woodbridge to stage her first new Caburlesque show in nearly a year. It was the first date of a new seasonal tour and the first chance to see the group since they wowed Simon Cowell and the judges on the hit TV show last year.
She says that the TV exposure was a little bit of a mixed blessing which is why they took a little breather after the demands of the filming schedule were over.
“The Britain's Got Talent gig came about by accident really. One of the dancers, Sarah Miller, sent it off for a laugh, we got accepted, got through the auditions and then week by week we got through each round 'till we found ourselves in the final. It was amazing, it wasn't anything we set out to do. We just sort of found ourselves caught up in something quite big and quite special.”
Their success on the Saturday night talent show reflects not only their talent and the glamour of their act but also the way that burlesque has become part of mainstream entertainment.
“We got a really good reception and some really positive feedback from people. We never really expected to make the final because we are not particularly family-orientated but once the show was over we felt that we needed to take some time off.”
She said that the contract for appearing in the final meant that the production company took 30% of their earnings for the next 12 months and as they were already an established act they didn't feel that they should give away that level of income.
“We felt that it was quite a lot of money and we ended up not doing much, which was quite nice. It allowed us to catch our breath and decide what we wanted to do next. We knew that we wanted to do a Christmas tour and we started planning that over the summer and have put together a whole new show.
“It's bigger, it's a longer show, it's basically the 12 Days of Christmas with a Caburlesque twist. It's a Christmas show with a glint in its eye.”
For Helen the success of Caburlesque is a dream come true. Daughter of Woodbridge am-dram impressario Don Spall, Helen Spall started her exotic cabaret company five years ago during her final year at Middlesex University. This coincided with a boom in similar entertainment in the capital, so when she and her friends graduated they decided to turn a part-time interest into a full-time profession.
She said: “In my third year of university I decided to put together a show so I could do some choreography, I love doing shows, and I quickly ended up doing one a month - that went on throughout my third year. After uni ended we decided to keep going.”
Caburlesque are now quite a fixture on the London nightclub scene and frequently provide bespoke entertainments for company functions, conferences and presentations. The show can be as short or complex as the purse allows.
“Many just want a couple of can, can girls and we are happy to just send those. Other times we will send along a short hour long package or maybe just a ten minute turn or a complete two hour, West End style show.”
She said that although she hates the phrase “naughty but nice” it is an apt description of the sort of show they perform. “Some people say: 'Well, are you strippers then?' and I say absolutely not. You will never see a completely naked girl on the stage at any point. That's not what burlesque is about. It's about the point before that, the tease and the artistry. It's not about the sordid. It's about what is hidden and yet not hidden.”
She says that the appeal lies in good old fashioned entertainment. The West-End style lighting and production values also gave the show a classy look. “If you look at the show, it just a good, old-fashioned variety show, but designed for adults. They are slightly risqu�, a bit tongue-in-cheek, slightly more exciting with a contemporary edge to it.
“The other thing which is really important to me, is that it is a totally live experience. It's not like film or telly. It's something you go out and experience in a theatre. It has atmosphere, it has a hint of mystery which draws the audience in. It engages the audience.”
She said that although the company has grown quite large since those days 60% of their core performers are those original students from Middlesex University's performing arts course.
She said that the long run on Britain's Got Talent has really boosted their profile and they have benefitted from the publicity but she found their need to control their act difficult to take at times.
“They were very welcoming but they are also quite controlling. They do try and manipulate you and try and control you - choosing the music you use, having to pass your routines through their choreographer - all things I found quite difficult to accept because I have always had the control myself.
“But, after a bit of negotiation, we agreed on a happy medium and they treated us very well.”
She said the big secret she took away from the experience was that off camera, Simon Cowell is a very nice man, who volunteered some very supportive and helpful comments.
“He liked what we did and liked the costumes and the routines. He knows what he is doing and is a very good producer.”
For 26 year-old Helen performing is in the blood. She said that she is so grateful that at a time when so many young actors are unemployed or spend more time waiting on tables in Covent Garden cafes than they do on stage, that she is employed full-time in the theatre.
When she is not running Caburlesque she is employed as a part-time technical manager in the West End but her real ambition is to be a choreographer. “I was always destined for the stage. If theatres didn't exist I don't know what I would do.”
She also spends her time teaching singing and dance at a number of London theatre schools as well as being stage manager at London's Comedy Store. “I have so many jobs it's ridiculous but I wouldn't have it any other way.”
She said that passion was at the heart of everything she did. “It's about doing something you really enjoy. That's why I have put my own money into it. There's nothing like it in the world. You get such a thrill putting a show together.”
She said that her own performing roots stretch all the way back to Woodbridge and The Company of Four. She first ventured on stage at the age of two and has been happy to stay there ever since.
“I followed Dad around learning the tricks of the trade - both on stage and off - and as a result of the skills I learnt there, the first job I got in London was stage manager at the Comedy store in Piccadilly Circus. I was recommended by my tutors because I had all this technical experience and expertise drawn from my time in Woodbridge. I loved working at the comedy store, met some great people and have had some great leads when it came to our own shows.
“But choreography is my absolute love. Back in Woodbridge I owed my big break as a choreographer to David Caddick, who offered me the chance to choreograph Guys And Dolls but he gave me an awful decision. He said I could either choreograph the show or audition for Sarah Brown - what a choice. It was tough but in the end I chose to choreograph the show. Which is an interesting decision considering how young I was at the time. But, looking back on it now, I made the right decision.”