You’ve read the Exeunt review of Magic Mike Live. We’ve all read the Exeunt review of Magic Mike Live. The tears. The drama. The fist-pump to female empowerment. A battle cry for female desire. It was an unmissable read.
I can tell you right now, that’s not what you’ll be getting here.
Because I do not want to go to Magic Mike Live.
Let me say that again, just so that we’re really clear: I do not, under any circumstances, want to go to Magic Mike Live.
The fact that I have to go to Magic Mike Live, in order to check off the theatre that lurks within the Leicester Square monolith that is the Hippodrome Casino, is something that has been giving me a great deal of stress over the past six months.
And it’s not because I’m a prude.
The fact that I’m a prude has nothing to do with it.
“I would honestly rather go to a real strip club,” I tell Helen and Ellen, as we do our best to get very, very drunk, somewhere below street level in Soho. (“Pre-loading,” Helen calls it).
“Really?” Helen is baffled by this. She’s looking forward to the show. Or rather, she’s looking forward to me not enjoying the show. “Why?”
“Because in a strip club, you are the one in power. You can tell the dancers to go away without feeling that you’re ruining things. It’s a one-on-one transaction. Not part of this, whole… thing.” I wave my hands about to demonstrate the scale of the… thing. One drink down and I’m already getting expansive. This place doesn’t mess around with their measures.
Earlier today I’d done something I’d never done before.
I told Twitter where I was going to be tonight.
I’ve always been very careful not to do that. Stalkers be scary, you know.
But I’m not worried about that anymore. If anything, I was courting that danger. Encouraging it. Asking for it. “Bring your arsenic and find me in Soho,” I told my followers.
A jokey “kill me,” that was only half a joke.
I really don’t want to go to Magic Mike Live.
A co-worker of mine went last week. She loved it.
“They’re really good dancers,” she said excitedly the next morning.
That’s quite a statement coming from someone who works at one of the most famous dance-houses in the world.
“But is there…” I pause, not wanting to use the word grinding, but not being able to come up with a suitable alternative. “Audience interaction?”
Yeah, okay. This is the real issue. Some rando stranger grinding on me is not something I want. If it were, I would go to a club, and you know what, I'd probably get a free drink into the bargain.
“Oh yeah. Where are you sitting?”
“In the balcony.”
“You won’t be taken on stage then.”
Thank fuck. “So, I’m safe then?”
She laughs at that. “No. They will find you!”
“Oh…” Oh fuck… “I think I’m going to have to get really drunk.”
Half way through the second drink and my head is starting to spin. Whatever the fuck they put in these cocktails is working. Every time I turn my head, I feel like I’m leaving my thoughts behind. That’s good, I tell myself. A couple more sips and I’ll be in a full on dissociative state. Just what I need to get through the next few hours.
It’s time to go.
We stagger back up to the street and start walking down to Leicester Square.
Helen and Ellen are all in a rush, though I keep on saying we have plenty of time.
Helen dives across Shaftesbury Avenue. Right across the road.
I jog behind with a squeal of “we’re going to dieeee,” before remembering that getting hit by a car was a great excuse for not going to see Magic Mike Live tonight. No luck though.
I point out the casino, but really there’s no need. Even from the back, it does rather loom.
There’s a kind of mural thing going on here. All lights and images and I’m not really able to focus on the presise nature of it, but I feel I should take a photo anyway.
“Sorry,” says a bloke, who on seeing me taking a photo of the wall display thing decides he also wants in on the action.
“Don’t worry, I’m done.”
“You also seeing the show?”
“Yes,” I say, in the tones of someone saying they’re just about to sit their Chemistry A-level.
“We are too!” He sounds super-duper excited about the whole thing.
“Are you looking forward to it?”
“Oh yeah. Aren’t you?”
“Ah. Well, see you in there!” he says with a cheery goodbye.
I have really got to get my shit sorted. Me not having a good night is fine. I mean, it’s not fine. But it’s fine.
However, me being the cause of someone else not having a good night… well, that’s taking the whole marathon thing too far, isn’t it?
In a move of openness that must have the Royal Opera House nashing their teeth, the box office is fully open to the street.
I stop, the cogs in my brain slowed by the excess alcohol.
“Do we go in here, or…?”
A man on the door sees my confusion and steps in. “Are you picking up your tickets?” he asks.
I nod. “Yeah.”
He waves me through and we join the queue.
There’s a man leaning on the counter and as I give my name to the lady at box office he starts rummaging in a Magic Mike Live branded gift bag.
“How many of you are there?” he asks.
He pulls out three envelopes. “Unfortunately a few of our cast members have a bug and won’t be performing,” he says. “There’s a drinks voucher in here, and a letter. We’d like you to come back and see the show properly, for free of course, as long as you promise to buy lots of drinks.”
Gosh, well. Okay. We take the envelopes, and our tickets, and join the queue to get in.
There's a red carpet.
A young woman stands on the door. She has a stack of envelopes in her hand.
“We should put our letters away,” I hiss at the other two. “Might get another one!”
Ellen gives me a look. I don’t think she’s ever seen me this drunk before.
“Max, are you leaning against the wall?” she asks.
I may be leaning against the wall. Hard to tell. It keeps on moving.
She gives me another look, but puts away her envelope all the same.
“Hi ladies!” says the young woman on the door. “A few of our cast members are off sick. The others will still be going on, and it’s the same show, exactly the same length. But we’d like to offer you’re the chance to come back and see it as it should be seen. For free of course,” she says, counting out more envelopes for us.
We now have two envelopes each.
If the bag checker notices this excess of envelopes he doesn’t say anything.
He does pick up on Helen’s water bottle though.
“It’s water!” she protests, but it’s no good. She has to go outside and down the whole thing.
“It’s very fancy in here,” I say, noting the old mirror with the Hippodrome’s name faded on the glass and the chandelier handing overhead. “Watch out if you don’t want to be in the photo.” Ellen jumps out the way.
“I’m very well hydrated,” Helen says on her return, and as the bag checker wishes us a good evening, we head up the stairs.
The stairs take us up straight to the loos. The Hippodrome clearly know their audience.
“It’s a ninety minute show, ladies,” says an usher. “Toilets are here and down there.”
I hang around, people watching as Helen and Ellen partake of the facilities. Everyone is dressed really fancy. Like, really fancy. Not just going out fancy. But going out out fancy. Hotpants and sequins and satin and tiny mini dresses.
I look down at my own efforts. A black dress. Vivienne Westwood. It’s really nice. But not nearly showy enough. I consider opening another button for added cleavage, but my fingers are all fumbly and I don’t think I can manage it. The mourning brooch pinned to my lapel was probably also a mistake. As were the stompy boots. Although considering my wall-leaning, perhaps its best I didn’t attempt heels.
Plus, I doubt any of these women just came from church.
“They have so adapted this place for women,” says Helen on her return. “There are urinals in the ladies’ loos. They must have transferred them over. Although you know what Caroline Criado Perez said about unisex loos?”
I do know what she says about unisex looks. “Only men use unisex loos with urinals. But they also use the ones that don’t have urinals. So, there’s even longer queues for the ones without urinals than if they were just ladies’ and gents’. Wait…” I stop. “Are we seriously having feminist discourse outside the loos at Magic Mike?”
“Oh, look, a hen party,” says Ellen, bringing the tone right back to where it needs to me.
The Hen, in her shiny satin sash, looks over and gives us a big grin, and we all grin back.
We go to the bar.
A girl walks past with a massive fishbowl of a drink.
“Wow,” says Ellen, gapping at the drink.
The girl laughs. “They just told me it’s a ninety minute show without a break,” she says with a shrug of resignation.
There are screens all over the place, warning us to take our seats because the show is about to start. I check my phone. There’s still ten whole minutes. I mean, I get that moving hundreds of drunk women into their seats might be tricky, but ten minutes!
“Hello ladies, are you seeing the show tonight?”
“Yup!” says Ellen, looking up from the drinks menu.
“Well, the show’s about to start, so you should probably take your seats. You can order your drinks from there. Don’t worry, it’s exactly the same menu, same choice, same everything.”
“Oh, okay then!”
“Can I see your tickets?”
I hand them over and he points us in the right direction, but a second later, we’re lost, having gone up a flight of stairs that we should not have gone up.
“I’m going to get a programme,” I say, spotting a merch desk on our way back down.
I glance over at the price list, kinda squinting as I do so because I don’t want to know. Ten pounds? Fifteen? Twenty probably.
“That’s seven pounds, please,” says the woman behind the desk.
Well, I mean, it’s hardly bargain of the century, but selling a programme for only seven pounds to an audience who are probably drunk enough to empty out their purses on the counter…. well, that is some Saint Simeon Stylites levels of ascetic restraint right there. Hang on, did I just say the word ascetic? Fucking hell, I must really be drunk right now. I’m not sure I even know how to spell that when sober. Or pronounce it. Wait, what’s going on?
“Are you taking pictures of the merch, Helen?” I ask, spotting Helen kneeling on the ground in front of the glass display.
“Just of the underpants.”
Well, that’s alright then.
“I don’t want one, but how much are these?” she asks, now back on her feet and poking through a bowl of temporary tattoos.
“Five pounds,” says the merch lady. Very patiently.
“We should probably go in…” I suggest.
We find the door. There are two ticket checkers. Both men.
“There are a lot of men working here,” I say, looking around. “Almost all men.”
Yes, there was the young woman on the main door. And the one at the merch desk. But everywhere else: bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke.
“And they’re all so nice!” says Ellen. “Like the guy who told us to go to our seats. He could have just said it, but he made the effort to tell us we could order drinks in there.”
Helen is nodding away enthusiastically. “And it’s not just nice it’s…”
“Gentlemanly,” I say.
“And like, not sleazy. At all.”
There’s more enthusiastic nodding from the pair of them as we get to the front of the queue.
“I’m just going to put this stamp on your hand,” says one of the ticket checkers, with the air of a paediatric nurse telling their young charge not to worry about the needle. It really won’t hurt.
“It’s a unicorn!” says Ellen, examining her new hand print.
I look at mine. I have to twist my arm in a very unnatural way to see it properly. It is a unicorn!
“Oh dear… it’s really small in here,” says Ellen as we go into the auditorium. She doesn’t sound overly happy about that. She’s not a fan of intimate theatre. Even when the performers are fully clothed.
“Hang on ladies, I’ll be right with you,” says yet another (male) usher.
We hang around as he seats another group.
“Oh god…” I say to the world in general.
“I know!” says a woman right back. “I’m dreading this. I keep on thinking about all the failed decisions in my life that brought me up to this point…”
I nod along sympathetically. Me too, love. Me fucking too.
A minute later, our usher is back. He bounds over with a grin, executing a neat spin as he approaches us.
“Yeah!” I say, very much impressed by the spin. I show him the tickets and he points out our seats.
I remember booking these. Vaguely.
“You’re over here. One, two, three,” he says, counting out the seats. “Wait, hang on,” he says as I make off. “Just some things I need to tell you first.” And he launches into a short speech. We’re allowed to take photos. But we need to keep the cameras close to us. He demonstrates, holding an imaginary phone close to his chest. “No leaning on the railing. The dancers will be moving around everywhere. So keep your drinks close, and your bags under your seat.”
And with that, we’re released.
The seats are wide and comfy. And there’s plenty of leg room.
The leg room is worrying me. As is the glass platform that is running around the outside of the balcony.
The lights go down.
A roar goes up from the audience. A blast of pure animal noise.
A male MC in a blue suit comes out on stage and starts stirring up the crowd.
A front of houser comes over with a drinks menu.
He crouches down and lean in as Helen and Ellen order.
“What do you want?” asks Ellen, handing me the menu.
I stare at it, but can’t make anything out. Is this even in English? It’s all just swirly lines on a page.
I hand it back. “It’s okay,” I say. “I don’t want anything.”
“Are you sure?” asks Ellen.
“It free,” Helen reminds me.
“Shit, err…” but it’s no good. It’s too dark. And too loud. I can’t focus. “What are you having?”
Ellen says something but it sounds like nonsense string of syllables.
“That sounds good,” I say. I trust Ellen’s drinks order than I do my own sense right now.
The MC has gone out into the stalls. He’s talking to an audience member.
A dancer comes over.
Oh, god. He’s grinding on her. The grinding has started.
This is so unpleasant.
The MC asks if she’s wet.
I am so grossed out right now.
She says no, but that answer just earns her a trip on stage where a dancer dressed as a firefighter pulls out a hose from his trousers. It squirts.
No euphemism intended on my part. That’s all on them.
The woman looks down out her outfit. Covered in a pink mess.
“Stop!” she shouts.
The dancer stops.
We all stop.
Lights change. A disembodied voice comes over the speakers.
Who is that?
What the fuck is going on?
The audience member is outraged. This isn’t what she wants. Male MCs asking if she’s moist, and dancers throwing around double entendres. And she’s not having it.
A microphone descends from the rig.
She’s taking over.
Ellen leans into me. “I don’t know what’s real anymore.”
Nor do I.
Nor. Do. I.
But it looks like we’re under a new regime. The girls are taking over.
She wants the firefighter costume off. He duly obliges, throwing it into the audience and revealing a crisp white t-shirt and nice pair of jeans underneath.
Blimey, that’s… well, that’s much better.
“He’s kinda hot,” says Helen.
I nod. He is kinda hot.
And so it begins.
Our new MC introduces the dancers. We have a CEO. A man holding a baby (not our baby, she is quick to clarify. That’s not part of the fantasy going on here). The boy next door.
The audience duly roars with every new revelation.
The dancers strut their stuff in routines that seem mainly made up of lighting changes. But even in my sodden state I can see that they’re not bad. These guys can dance.
And they don’t stay still.
A minute on stage, and they are off, prowling around the audience, shifting seats around to give themselves room to show off their moves.
Our drinks arrive.
Mine is very pink. It has a straw.
I give it a sip.
It seems to be primarily made up of sugar, with the merest dash of alcohol.
“It’s very sweet,” says Ellen. She puts her’s down under her chair.
I carry on drinking.
Helen tries to say something to me, but I can’t hear her. A second later she’s showing me her phone. “The way you look next to them…” it says. She points at the girls sitting next to me.
They’re screaming. Properly screaming. And bouncing around in their seats.
They are very drunk.
Drunker than me.
Drunker than I have ever been in my life.
I don’t think it would be physically possible for me to get that drunk. The world would run out of alcohol before that happened.
As dancers gyrate their way around the glass platform, the girls scream at them, wave at them, reach for them.
They are so happy.
And all the while, young men in smart shirts and red aprons dart between the rows, taking orders and bringing drinks.
I catch Helen looking at me again. “You’re watching the audience, not the stage!” she shouts over the music.
“I’m here as a professional,” I shout back. But she’s right. I am watching the audience. It’s fascinating stuff. Seeing the excitement. The enjoyment. The letting go.
A rope descends from the rig just in front of us. I nudge Ellen and point at it.
We raise our eyebrows at each other.
Looks like we’re going to get some aerial work going on.
Someone appears next to our row.
He’s not a dancer. He’s a stage manager or something.
He grabs the rope and starts tightening knots and getting it ready and… gosh, he’s very attractive.
Fuck. No. Stop Maxine. Don’t do that. Don’t perv on the poor stage managers, who are just trying to do their jobs.
Honestly, it is so on brand of me to go to a strip show and end up getting a crush on one of the backstage team.
I look back at the stage.
The dancers are doing their very utmost. Shirts are coming off. Abs revealed. All very impressive.
And our MC is keeping them under strict control.
A dancer rubs her shoulders before moving down to her feet.
“I don’t need my foot rubbed,” she snaps back. “I’m trying to do a show here. What about her?” She points at a woman in the front row, and the dancer trots over as bidden, sits on the edge of the stage, and holds out his hand, ready to receive the audience member’s foot.
She needs a little encouragement from our MC, but soon enough, her sandled foot is getting a rub down.
Our MC has found herself a prodigy. A young neophyte she wishes to mold into the perfect man.
“What’s the most important thing when dealing with a woman?” she asks him.
There’s a pause as he considers the answer. He leans in, speaking into her microphone. “Permission,” he whispers.
The effect is electric. The room almost bursts as 300 women levitate from their seats at that word.
The MC decides what we need is a safe word. “Unicorn,” she decides. If anything happens that we don’t want to be happening, just say unicorn “and they will listen!” she promises.
Women are starting to come up on stage. They get picked up, danced over, and gyrated against.
A few of them cover their faces with their hands not knowing what to do with their faces as they get lain back on tables and danced on top of.
“Look, they’re sweeping!” says Ellen, pointing back at the stage where yes, a few stage hands have run on to clean things up while we were all distracted.
My neighbour flaps her hand in front of me. “Look! Look!” she says in my ear. “He's coming up!”
I look. One of the dancers is climbing up to the balcony.
“Have you ever had a boyfriend, or a partner,” says our MC, “sing you your favourite song?”
The dancers come back out, this time with instruments.
Helen jumps in her seat. “This is my favourite song,” she shouts and laughs, unable to keep her joy contained.
I can’t tell you what Helen’s favourite song is. I don’t know it. I haven’t recognised any of the music tonight come to think of it.
But I seem to be the only one because everyone is having great fun singing along.
I sit back and decide to wait until they bring out Marilyn Manson’s greatest hits.
A dancer comes out with an arm full of roses and starts handing them out, even lobbing a few into the balcony.
Helen catches one.
She's doing really well tonight.
And then it comes. The bit I’d been dreading.
“You’ve all had hard days,” says our MC. “You should get a lapdance! Just remember. The safe word is unicorn. Say it if you need to and the dancers will listen.”
“They are working fast,” I say, watching as the dancer assigned to the balcony moves and grinds his way along the front row, not spending more than a few seconds on each person.
He pauses a few times, to push back hair and whisper in ears, but never for long. There are a lot of people to get through.
Finishing the end of the row, he crosses the aisle and dives into the row behind us. From there he goes to the other end of our section, working on one woman then leaving again.
“It’s beginning to feel a bit pointed,” says Ellen, not sounding overly disappointed at not getting a dancer thrusting at her.
But that’s not it. I’ve noticed something. It’s been happening all night.
They’re reading the room. The dancers. Or at least someone who is telling the dancers.
Girls wearing shorts were lain down on stage. Ones wearing trousers had their legs lifted in the air. Larger girls where presented with dancers to feel up. Smaller ones were lifted around.
And those three woman sitting in the balcony who weren’t on the feet, dancing around with everyone else? Yeah, someone noticed that they weren’t totally into it. And they made sure that they didn’t need to unicorn their way out of anything.
Down in the stalls, a woman has spilt her drink. One of the red aproned front of housers runs over with a roll of paper towels. He spins out reams of the stuff. Feet of it. Metres. Making a spectacle of the paper towels flying around as he cleans up the table for her.
And I want to laugh, because that’s it, isn’t it? That’s how you look after an audience. Not just one composed of drunk women. Any audience. You look after them. Make them feel cared for. And safe. And give them an out. Just in case they need it.
“It had the kind of camaraderie you find in night club bathrooms,” says Ellen as we try to find our way out. “Girls lending each other their mascara, you know?”
“That was an amazing feeling,” says Helen, inspecting her rose. “Like, the audience is the most important part of a show. You can’t have one without them. But to feel it… to have the experience focused on you…”
The show isn’t for me. I didn’t expect for it to be.
But what I expected it to be was awful.
And it wasn't that either.
It was all perfectly fine.
In a week when I have been thinking so much about audience consent, from the assault on audiences at 10,000 Gestures, to the warning-laden A Web in the Heart earlier today, Magic Mike Live feels like a shining example of how to treat them. And yes, Boris Charmatz fans may point out that the results here are hardly art. And the extreme behaviour of his dancers served some higher purpose. But in 2019, as the world goes to shit, perhaps what we need, what we all need, is not some choreographer’s intellectual fantasy, but reasonably priced programmes, ushers who actively want their guests to have a good time, and a safe word to arm ourselves with.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to concentrate very hard on not throwing up as I try to find the night bus home.