An evening with La Soirée

This arty, expensive circus is fun, but not that far from the bad old days of light entertainment.

Variety, as we all know, is the spice of life, and it seems our appetite for it has been pretty constant since the days of the Strong Man and the Bearded Lady. London's South Bank is currently hosting a new big top incarnation in the form of a beautiful art nouveau mirror tent, home to La Soirée's shiny sideshow collection over Christmas.

This is old tricks skilfully rebranded for a metropolitan audience that perhaps thinks itself sophisticated; too sophisticated for Gerry Cottle's Circus in Chingford, say, but willing to fork out for seats and drinks at something edgy with a French name. Many of us are guilty of peppering our prose with a bit of French to add a bit of je ne sais quoi, but it seems we also take our circuses gallicised with foreign aliases like Cirque du Soleil or La Clique.

For all La Soirée is billed as "new", it feels like a reassuring trip to Variety Villas down Memory Lane. Part of the evening's fun was working out the genealogy of the acts, the bloodlines from, amongst other things, TV shows of the 1970's like the fabulously awful Seaside Special (whose tent was courtesy of Cottle himself). There's the skit where an audience member has to find the lines for a scene on the body of the comedienne, which is pure Generation Game circa 1974. Even the male striptease routines didn't offer too much more than the Chippendales have already given us. (Mercifully, perhaps.) The acrobatic dance number round the lamppost is Gene Kelly via George Sampson off Britain's Got Talent.

Indeed the links to BGT are proudly referenced when titanic black baritone "Chocolate Gateau", winsome in feathers and lycra, lip-synchs along to Susan Boyle's first audition, before belting out his own version of "I Dreamed a Dream". Of course the great spangly prize offered to BGT contestants is the staggeringly irrelevant Royal Variety Show (perhaps the attacks on Charles and Camilla were not anti-tuition fees but anti-variety). The phrase "infinite variety" begins to sound like a depressing sentence.

Nothing new under the glitter-ball, then. But that said, La Soirée does begin to work a creeping charm. Maybe the shock of the wine prices had worn off, and the wine itself had kicked in, but by the second half I was thawing nicely to the circus shtick. The lamppost dance really is astonishingly beautiful: performer Hamish McCann actually appears to walk on air as he spins round the post horizontally, to the smoky soundtrack of Nina Simone. Frodo the double-jointed clown, in his impossibly small tennis shorts, is disarmingly goofy as he punctuates his gags and contortions with a celebratory handful of confetti.

Acrobats "The English Gents" pull off a Magritte surrealism, their supercilious pinstriped, pipe-smoking vibe at delicious odds with their extraordinary balance and strength. And mention must be made of Bath Boy, the "demigod in denim", wearing throwback jeans from the Levi's 501 adverts of the 1980's. But wet. The mix of impeccable pecs and aerial stunts (and did I mention he was wet?), which had water arcing provocatively over the ringside seats, had a large portion of the audience baying.

The South Bank has talent, all right, but as with all such things, not all talents are equal. Being super skilled with hula-hoops or sword swallowing is unlikely to cut quite the same kind of visual dash as our laving Lothario. Not all the pratfalls were properly visible in the round, and some of the comedy numbers seemed weary in comparison, our appreciation of such gags apparently having a much shorter shelf life than our appreciation of the ripped male form. And this spectator would have preferred the risks and reciprocities of live music: the tape somehow renders the whole thing karaoke-flat.

I may prefer my circuses more subversive and my cabaret more seedy, but nonetheless there is something rather wonderful about artists who have devoted their lives to perfecting something so magnificently anomalous. The price tag might disqualify La Soirée from Juvenal's cheap and cheerful bread and circuses, but it's definitely one way to warm up a cold, cold December night.

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution