The Burlesque UndergroundThe Burlesque Underground rises to the surface every Thursday night at the Bohemia Cabaret Club to titillate, tempt and teach the dark sexual arts.

Some warnings before we commence: this review contains potentially offensive themes and content, and a little strong language when quotes are called for.

Another caveat: don't arrive after 8.30pm unless you want to walk in to see the performance happening directly in front of you, as the doors open right behind the small circular stage that is the focal point for the long, slender space.

And lastly: if you pipe up, you will get attention. And probable ridicule, especially if you think YOU'RE the dominant one in any relationship. And if you say you're a singer, you'd better have the chops to back it up.

Enter a world full of alter egos, sly and shocked audience members, uncomfortable men (for a number of possible reasons) and lovely girls getting their kits off. Or starting without much on to take off.

The Bohemia Cabaret Club is known for its food, as well as its wide range of cabaret and burlesque performances. Here you'll find all kinds, from classic striptease to neo-burlesque, burlesque noir, and a whole variety of other sub-genres that they seem to make up as it pleases them.

The Burlesque Underground is a regular Thursday night show featuring a range of solo performers who are brought together by our two MCs, the domineering Jasper Black and the philosophical Jack Lad. They connect the ladies' performances with discussions of the themes, but not the academic kind of discussion – more the pondering of someone in a high-backed leather chair, cigar in one hand and glass of red in the other. I'm sure that's where these two would be, with a few companions, if they weren't on stage.

Each MC has an oddly off feel. It's hard to tell what causes this, or if it is a byproduct of the type of performance – the purposely counterculture, subversive striving for a radical sexual liberation. Jasper doesn't let you pretend you're not there – you can't hide from her eyes or her knowledge. Beg pardon, his eyes. Be prepared to front up about your sexual habits; are you dominant or submissive? Well, there's an interesting something to be learnt about those perceived roles, from the wisdom of Mr Black.

Jack Lad is, to put it mildly, creepy. He looks like something straight out of a black and white mafia movie, not quite the Mob Boss, but one of the higher-end henchmen at least. His deep smooth voice starts speaking a long time before the whole room is paying attention. He dwells on the delights and pleasures of pain, and asks us to dredge our naughtiest desires up from the recesses of our imaginations. I'm not sure what impact his character aims to create. He was effective as a contrast to the pretty young women wearing only nipple tassels and g-strings, but in every way I found him a deeply unattractive being, which stopped me from engaging with his segments.  

Now to the ladies, whose short performances dotted the night, in between times where patrons were left to amuse themselves and consume the venue's expensive alcohol and exotic food. We met Miss Red, the resident showgirl and plaything who likes to be dominated. We marvelled at Kerriex, the "Queen of Sex and Pain", who also cleverly recreated Eve. Scarlet added another masochistic minx to the group; she was a gorgeous creature, but a touch of uncertainty detracts from her performance. And we enjoyed Bella De Jac, reincarnated from little Betsy who does the girls' hair, into a devastatingly sensual dancer. Her performance was the most complex, and by far the best. She worked with edgier music, more demanding movement, and made the most of her wonderful costume of sheer gown and black lace trim.

While the quality of the performances as classic burlesque was quite high, I felt strongly that they needed to reinvent it, and do something different. This is the conundrum of neo-burlesque. It was born of a very different social time, and so it has to address different concepts. Seeing a stream of sexy women enact simple dances with fans and lovely costumes, and a little bit of masochism thrown in for good measure, didn't have the impact it once may have. Once you've seen a bit of classic burlesque, you see many things repeated – the moves, the use of large fans, what's revealed at the appropriate moments (mostly sparkly nipple tassels). The only aspect of this show that was different to burlesque I've seen elsewhere was the off-stage actor interaction. Jasper Black fondled her play thing, Jack Lad posed his huge frame against the walls, and a silent blonde at the bar made eyes at everything that moved, not moving herself all throughout the performance. This is what this show does well – its dark and sensual vibes permeate the whole venue. The table staff supported this with their personalities, outfits and behaviour, and did a wonderful job of looking like they were having fun, and making sure their patrons were too.

In the end I felt that Jasper Black had the most impact, the way she spoke directly to us, and having caught one in her gaze, no frightened audience member could bound away and evade giving a response. And if you admit to something, you may have to prove it. Anna, early in the show, said she was a singer. At the end, Jasper handed her a microphone, and she showed us what she's got – vocal talent, that is. This was a delightful and unexpected end to the evening, and no doubt all nights will be as unpredictable.

Bohemia Cabaret Club presents

Venue: Bohemia Cabaret Club | 226-228 Coventry Street, South Melbourne
Date: Thursday, 12 & 19 July 2012  

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