Tuesday, 16 March 2021

REVIEW: Ada Campe: Unexpectedly Cheerful at the Phoenix Arts Club (Online)

It has been a year since the first lockdown shook up our lives and produced the most surreal 365 days, I for one, have ever experienced. This (temporary) reality we have been forced into has mandated we adapt to unimaginable novel conditions and that human contact transform into a virtual concept. For some, the choice has been to ride out the storm quietly in solitude but, if you expect a global pandemic to keep a cabaret down, think again! 

The Phenix Arts Club, known for entertaining entertainers, is the definition of a London theatre institution steeped in history and renowned for welcoming in the who's who of the West End and up and coming performers alike. The journey through its side street doors and down its dark stairs to discover an array of weird and wonderful entertainment has been sorely missed by many during this strange time so to combat this separation anxiety, ONLINE from the Phoenix Arts Club has been launched on Friday nights. Streaming in HD from February 26th, this series brings some of Londons most beloved verity acts into your home completely live.

On Friday, March 12th, I sat down in my living room in my housecoat with my Mexican dinner (a far cry from an actual night out at the Pheonix but, it is what it is) to the multi-talented Naomi Paxton as Ada Campe in Unexpectedly Cheerful. Ada Campe is a flamboyantly dressed, seasoned and well-spoken woman with just the right amount of crudeness mixed in and it is clear Paxton relishes playing this character. Together with ventriloquist Max Fulham, pianist Sarah Bodalbhai and Ada’s kiwi fruit counterpart Cycloptic Janet, they have created a cabaret for the times, whimsical and surreal. As a first-time audience member of Ada Campe, I feel like she is essentially the perfect manifestation of the lockdown psyche. Eccentric, nostalgic, doesn’t make complete sense and has learnt to laugh at its own jokes because let's face it no one else is around to.

You have to enter this experience with a certain level of acceptance when considering the nature of cabaret does not traditionally lend itself to an online, audience-less room. When a joke's set up in this format, the pay off is silence. Perhaps uncomfortable at first, intriguingly, within this silence normally reserved for banter, drunken laughter and the buzzing energy of a club, I found myself spiralling into the warped madness of Ada Campe in its raw form. Without an audience to help steer her material, it becomes hers alone to do with it as she wishes and does so with commitment. As I tried desperately to hold on during the rambling of her stories in a raspy RP, I had to give up and just let go. 

Within the absurdity of the performance, there are still many hooks to keep it relatable, particularly regarding the lockdown experience. Some are a little tired at this end of the pandemic, but others hit the nail on the head. Let's just say when she sings about her cat with such passion, I feel seen!

A highlight of the evening is ventriloquist Max Fulham, a performer to keep your eye on for sure! Fulham offers a unique slapstick take on ventriloquism. The rhythm, pacing and control he has over his craft are effortless and a welcome surprise. 

An element of the production slightly frustrating is the comments that periodically pop up at the bottom of the screen. In one way it is nice to connect to the other viewers but for the most part, they are distracting.

This digital connection to the world will be a part of our lives for a while to come but this does not mean live theatre should not be. While many theatres sit patiently for more amicable times, I am a big supporter of the impatience venues such as The Pheonix Arts Club have to get back out there. Art is about challenging what we know and a reflection of the times. Ada Campe Unexpectedly cheerful is a reflection of the madness we have all been living in.

Review by Stephanie Osztreicher

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Online | Price of Ticket: £10
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