Damsel Sophie in Double Bill: ‘The Damsel in Shining Armour’ and ‘Hot’

Damsel Sophie

Cabaret review for a very interesting double-bill at St James Studio.

Sophie Walsh-Harrington

Sophie Walsh-Harrington

“…Both..shows..funny and very strange…courageous and refreshing”

Well, this evening was certainly different!

These shows are not easy to describe. The publicity for ‘The Damsel in Shining Armour’ suggests mythical creatures and one expects fairy story content – which there isn’t. The show is certainly not a cabaret in the usual sense, though the all-important aspect of direct connection with the audience is present, nor is it simply a one-woman show, but rather a mix between the two using the songs of Celine Dion as a means to advance the spoken narrative of the artist’s troubled love-life. It was a huge success at the Adelaide Fringe 2011, winning the award for Best Cabaret.  I saw it as part of a double bill at St James Theatre.

‘Hot’ is the sequel, describing the difficulties of following up a show that had been so well-received. Here, Sophie Walsh-Harrington, alias Damsel Sophie, insists through a megaphone that ‘this is not a cabaret’, but rather an attempt to bury her cabaret past, and to produce a more ‘serious’ work again employing the techniques of mime, political and physical theatre and song.

Both of these shows are funny and very strange.

In ‘Damsel’, she uses props including implements of bondage, and finger puppets to present the essence of significant conversations and express her state of mind. Overdone physical gestures such as leaning against the back wall or throwing her hair around in front of a fan are repeated, serving as physical forms of catchphrase; and she asserts throughout that “one must create melodrama in one’s life”, until sadness in the real world restores her to a more balanced acceptance of herself and she finds equilibrium.

Sophie’s comic timing is impeccable. She uses her strong singing voice well and is ably supported by observant pianist Mark Aspinall. Hilarity and weirdness are punctuated by moments of whimsy and true poignancy. There is also a grittiness stemming from her Northern English roots that compels her to send up pretension, including that so often prevalent in the artforms of cabaret and physical theatre that she clearly loves. She shows a lot of daring in these shows, risking both the audience simply not ‘getting’ her and of certain elements of audience participation not going to plan and falling flat. Such originality is both courageous and refreshing.

‘Hot’ is not as well thought through as a piece as ‘Damsel’. There is a hysterical episode in the middle where she dresses as a donkey and gently digs at French physical theatre. Her voice and movement skills deftly create the world of a farmyard inhabited by an unexpectedly posh pig, and a raucous party where the donkey is isolated though desiring to join in. On balance, though, this work needs more structuring and, I suspect, more time to elapse for the artist to grow both emotionally and artistically. I sense a tendency for this artist to rely too much on effect and inclusion of the ‘right’ elements of cabaret, such as getting the audience to play or sing along etc, rather than honing the narrative. This is where Sophie’s work needs further definition and refining.

Nonetheless, she is charming, naturally ebullient and zany. Her self-deprecating wit, bravery and unique take on this theatrical form make her a compelling person to watch and if you get a chance to see her, you should.

About Fiona Jane Weston

I am Fiona-Jane Weston and as well as being a performer myself (see website), I write reviews of and features on shows, mainly on the London cabaret and theatre scene. I have worked in theatre for many years, but decided to embark on a new direction in cabaret in 2009, when I produced 20th Century Woman: The Compact Cabaret. Not wanting to neglect my love of spoken word, particularly drama and verse, I made the conscious decision to include these elements in the programme, as well as wonderful songs, to tell the story of women's changing status and preoccupations throughout the 20th Century and up to now. I was invited to audition for the renowned Cabaret Conference at Yale, run by the late legendary Erv Raible, and that was thrilled to be one of only 26 accepted that year, where I was taught by the masters of the genre. Amanda McBroom (composer of the Bette Middler hit "The Rose" and the poignant "Errol Flynn"), Laurel Massé, original member of Manhattan Transfer, Sally Mayes, Tony Award nominees Sharon McNight and Tovah Feldshuh, and New York cabaret veteran Julie Wilson were all on the faculty. We were also treated to the musical direction of Alex Rybeck, Hubert Tex Arnold and the now late Paul Trueblood. With the benefit of their insightful teaching and great encouragement, I took my show to The Duplex in New York, where I was delighted with the response. Since then, I have produced Loving London: The Capital Cabaret, using the same format of songs, poetry and drama, in various London venues, including Leicester Square Theatre and The Crazy Coqs. 2014, the centenary of World War 1, saw the launch of Wartime Women: the Khaki Cabaret to a sellout house at St. James Theatre, London, garnering great notices, including from The Times and Musical Theatre Review. I have since been touring the show to Belgium and throughout the UK. I hope these reviews and interviews entertain and educate at the same time, and if please do leave comments in the box. It's great to engage in a conversation about the Arts. Fiona-Jane Weston
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