In the kitchen of a traditional-style flat in the east end of Edinburgh, one of the ones that looks just like where your friends stayed when you were at university, things are pretty busy. People pass through: checking email, fixing plates of food from a pot on the table, singing snatches of well-known songs. The walls are covered in post-it notes while a whiteboard breaks down names and duties. Lists attached to the fridge provide important information: the wi-fi key, phone numbers, a meal plan indicating that at some point over the next few weeks whoever is on kitchen duty will be catering to as many as eleven. Another list breaks down preferences: tea, contact, pronouns…
So maybe not your typical student flat then.
As kaberett – new-ish member of queer feminist burlesque troupe Lashings of Ginger Beer Time and Fringe first-timer – tells me later, what I have stumbled into is something approaching the idealised communist model. “From each according to their ability…” they laugh. “We’ve gotten through a lot of rice since we arrived here, a lot of cheap staples – a surprising amount of oats…” That might have something to do with kabarett’s flapjack-making skills, which they say has the added bonus of being able to attract the attention of potential punters when flyering on the Royal Mile.Sebastienne, Lashings’ founder member, got her taste for the limelight in ‘Girlesque’, the song-and-dance troupe which became known for its twisted versions of showtunes and dance numbers involving sex toys she set up during her time at Oxford University. Founded in 2008, her new venture incorporates many of the same elements but with added helpings of sex and politics. Although not averse to fishnets and nipple tassels the group are keen to impress on me that theirs is burlesque in the more traditional sense of the word, paying homage to the Victorian music hall era rather than Dita von Teese.
It’s a style that has proved an incredibly effective means of getting their message across, Cleopatra tells me. The group’s style, she says, involves the use of “silly things, like pop songs, to talk about serious things, like feminism” – or, sometimes, the other way around.
“Lashings very much started with the idea of making humour that never kicks down,” she says. “It’s no fun making fun of people who are more oppressed than you when there is so much more you can do.”
For this year’s show, three acts centred around the theme of “alternative sex education” are made up of a series of sketches – a fluid set-up allowing for the presence of different members in the city at different times and meaning that you are unlikely to catch the same show two nights running. The familiar songs and pop culture references are certainly a ‘hook’, particularly when cast members are performing selected cuts from the show on Edinburgh’s outdoor stages during the day, but hide serious messages. If you happen to be a fan of both Lady Gaga and Twilight for example, a particularly hilarious pastiche on female representation in the trilogy might cut a little close to the bone.
To be fair though, there are plenty of Lashings numbers they wouldn’t be able to get away with on Edinburgh High Street during a rainy lunchtime in August. “We tend not to do ‘Vagina Dentata’ on the Royal Mile…” Sebastienne says, half wicked half wistful.
***Back in the kitchen, kabarett has asked Valentina to help them run through one of tonight’s numbers. They will be serenading her with a Lashings classic – a version of the Cole Porter song “You’re The Top” – as part of a longer sketch involving… oh, it’s best not to say. kabarett’s version is pleasant enough, if delivered a little nervously, but in a group this supportive I’m taken aback to see Valentina apparently stifle a yawn.
This turns out, however, to be all part of the act. Unsurprisingly the song is easily manipulated to become an homage to kink and Valentina – who has one of the most expressive faces, perfect for this type of comedy, I have ever seen – quickly gets into dominant character. The low-key rehearsal goes well until she grabs a blue plastic drinking straw from the counter and begins to menace kabarett with it in place of the riding crop the script calls for – kabarett, unsurprisingly, collapses into peals of laughter.
The “alternative sex education” theme about as a result of a review of Lashings’ first visit to the Fringe in 2010. At the time, ScotsGay magazine thought that the troupe deserved a place on the national curriculum – leading them to wonder what life would be like if they had had access to diverse, honest and hate-free sex education. As Cleopatra explained during Sunday night’s performance (as explained above, your mileage may vary) most of Lashings’ members began their schooling just after the Thatcher government’s infamous ‘Section 28’ law, banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, came into force in 1988 – and left just after its repeal, in 2003 (2000 in Scotland). The law left teachers afraid to mention the very existence of homosexuality, never mind promote it – making the classroom at best an isolating place for those young people who were already aware that the spectrum of human sexuality is far more fluid than even that.
“For a while we wondered if we could gather together enough of our ‘kid friendly’ material to take on some kind of schools educational tour – probably about very basic stuff, like bodies and consent, but still a damn sight better than the sex education videos we were given in school,” Sebastienne said. It’s an idea she hasn’t ruled out returning to at some point in the future, opening up exciting possibilities for those kids who are, in some cases, made to feel as if there is something wrong with them – or worse. It seems disrespectful to call it a ‘sketch’, but one of the most moving bits of the show I see is a section on queer youth suicide. It leaves me – as well as half the cast – in floods of tears.
Much of the content for what the group have termed the “dystopian” section of the show is based on their own experiences – the result, Sebastienne says, of taking these irresponsible attitudes to their logical conclusion. Much of the material came about as the result of a collaborative day with as many of the group as could make it – other shows, according to the trigger warnings Lashings post in advance of each show – feature graphic depictions of injuries resulting from domestic violence, and discussion of physical and sexual assault.
“There’s a dual purpose to the show,” Sebastienne explains. “People might be drawn to it because they hear ooh, it’s a burlesque show, it’s about sex, that’s interesting – but hopefully the experiences that we are talking about might be new, and you might go away having learned something. But equally, if it’s an experience you recognise, quite a lot of the feedback we get is along the lines of this is the first time people have seen their experience – their identity – represented on stage in a positive way, rather than as the butt of a joke.”
“An introduction that we sometimes use, and sometimes don’t, is that a particular song is for ‘every teenager who has ever come out and everyone who hasn’t,” kabarett adds. “I tear up every time I think about it.”Sex education rightly became a political hot potato once again last year when Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tried to bring forward a private member’s bill calling for compulsory lessons in sexual abstinence specifically for teenage girls. The proposal was thankfully dropped at the start of this year, in no small part as a result of outrage from the feminist movement. What I was given in terms of sex education – some basic mechanics, a booklet on how to prepare for the baby God would give you when you were married and a girls-only visit from a lady from the natural family planning organisation once we hit sixteen – at which point several in my year group had already become mothers – was an abomination, and while I doubt the Catholic schools of Scotland are likely to begin discussing fisting and dental dams in the classroom some acceptance of reality, rather than hoping that by not talking about sex it might go away, would go a long way. I want to tell the Lashings crew that, regardless of whether they eventually manage to pull it off, that they are fighting for it in the first place is something I admire.
“I went to Catholic school…” I begin.
Everybody in the kitchen laughs. It’s only later that I realise that I have delivered one of the lines from the show, pretty much verbatim.
Having done our best to avoid spoilers during our conversation, later that night at the Bongo Club I turn into one of those obnoxious spectators down the front who thinks she’s in the show herself. I laugh, I cry, I sing along when I can; I shudder as performance poet Sally Outen recalls how she learned about sex accompanied by disturbingly graphic readings from a children’s book supposedly about cute, cuddly moles. If you go along and manage not to, well, you’d have to have a heart of stone.
Alternative Sex Education is on every night at the Bongo Club, Holyrood Road, at 8:30pm until Friday, 17th August. Purchase advance tickets – including two for one tomorrow night (Tuesday 7th) at The Fringe website.
[All images courtesy of Lashings of Ginger Beer Time – portraits by Lyman Gamberton]