Showwxmen Sideshow Spectacular by Holly Revell
Showwxmen Sideshow Spectacular by Holly Revell

The All New Carnesky’s Showwomxn Sideshow Spectacular part of Brighton Festival

By Marisa Carnesky

I always wanted to know, or perhaps it was a narrative planted in my head from fragments of old British films about variety shows, what it was like to be a showgirl for a summer season in a seaside town filled with performers and audiences. The shows that would have been in the grand venues in town, like the Brighton Hippodrome – now being renovated and soon to be re-opened. It was this fascination that led me to the National Fairground and Circus Archive (NFCA) at the University of Sheffield some years ago to do a research fellowship project entitled Showwomen. 

The NFCA’s founder, and at the time Collections Manager, is Professor Vanessa Toulmin. She is like a tornado of knowledge on the history of popular performance, circus, variety, fairground and, as she calls it, ‘illegitimate entertainment’ in all its myriad forms. She was born into the fairground community and established the archive in 1994 born out of her original research and commitment to bring greater representation to working class entertainment history and legitimacy to its under-celebrated workers. 

Toulmin introduced me to the term ‘Showwoman’ which was generally used in the fairground community to describe a woman who is the proprietor of a ride, circus or fairground amusement or theme park. It was clear that me and others like me were inhabiting a space that straddled the worlds of performance art, the burlesque showgirl and the woman that ran the show. It seemed to me that we could use the term Showwoman as well, that we could be renamed in culture from mere Showgirls and promoted in the ranks of showpeople to fully fledged Showwomen. Perhaps with the term Showwoman in wider culture, unlike the Showman, they would not be famous for having a great sense of bravado and exploiting people, but could perhaps instead represent a new kind of woman-led spectacle – a vision of grand kind of matriarchal utopia. 

Contemporary cabaret has changed the popular performance landscape. New shows that explore and evolve traditional variety tropes are growing in clubs, festivals, theatre and across the media. So, who runs the show now? Not just Showmen. Time for the men to step aside! There is a new breed of Showwomxn in town! This is one of the themes of my draw dropping, heart-stopping, dream-weaving fabulous new show for the Brighton Festival: Carnesky’s Showwomxn Sideshow Spectacular

Carnesky’s Showwomxn Sideshow Spectacular_BF24_Image 1

Why do we spell it with an X? Because some of us are women spelt with an E and some with an X. We are inclusive and we are different, and we are future feminists. We don’t all fulfil the traditional gender stereotype of mainstream women. We don’t all use our wombs in the same way and some of us don’t have wombs. Some of us are binary and some are non-binary. Who are we? We are womxn who walk on fire and glass from Paris like Lala Morte, or women who hang by their hair whilst doing the splits twenty feet above the ground with no net, like Jackie Le. We are Laura London who performs astounding sleight of hand magic and we are Claire Heafford, woman wrestler and feminist campaigner. We are Symone, Guniness world record holding circus artist and Elf Lyons award winning comedian. We are spoken word artist Livia Kojo Alour; we are Ella The Great, Clown, Drag King and Unicyclist; we are Tallulah Haddon rising star and radical performance artist. We are them and we are many more. We are a team, we are different yet united, we are our own bosses, and we have a shared collective vision.  

The dream of Brighton as the most joyful, brightly coloured brilliant seaside destination has been in my heart for as long as I can remember. Perhaps that’s why I went to college here in the 1990s and came back in 2017 to make it my home. When I was a child in the early 70s we would come here on holiday to a little flat in Hove Street. There was an old- fashioned sun filled restaurant on the corner of the parade and it’s there that I tasted prawn cocktail for the first time. At the top of the beach at the end of the street there were some children’s rides with painted ladybug carriages that held a very magical place in my mind. And from there I would run to the pebble beach in my brand-new polka dot swimsuit with frills with a bucket and spade searching for sand. Brighton’s’ fading grandeur of then, its lure of everything that represented the exotic, its fortune telling mannequins in glass boxes on the pier and carousels with decorated fairground horses, lit my long-term love affair with the otherworldly alure of seaside entertainments of the past. Brighton was a place you could be other, extraordinary and anything but mundane. 

Koringa sml

Perhaps showbusiness is all about that now as it was then. A place where the forbidden is allowed and celebrated and becomes the norm. It wasn’t the norm for women to run the show in the heyday of variety. But were women entertainers like us who were more than Showgirls in variety performance past? Is there a case to say there were always Showwomen in British variety and circus? Women who were their owns bosses and created their own acts and identity and ran their own shows? Women who performed here in Brighton doing extraordinary things? I found quite a few of them in the depths of newspaper cuttings and old programmes and photographs in the archive….

Firstly I’d like to introduce you to Koringa who was an incredible performer and Brighton regular around the late 1930s. She laid on a bed of nails and had concrete blocks broken across her stomach. She was one of the biggest stars in pre-war Britain. Most famously she hypnotised her live crocodiles, who sometimes rebelled and ran into orchestra pits frightening the audiences. She also claims to have worked for the French Resistance, hypnotising animals on enemy lines so soldiers could cross unnoticed by night. 

Lulu 1939

Then there was Lulu Adams, who Professor Vanessa thinks was the first ever British woman clown who was a Brighton resident and lived on Grand Parade. She performed with her husband Albertino who was also a clown and they both played the bagpipes. They left the Bertram Mills Circus in the late 30s to perform in the Barnum and Bailey Circus in New York, fleeing the shutdown entertainment world of wartime Britain. Newspaper articles saved amongst her piles of clippings reveal how he tragically dropped dead days after their arrival whilst giving an interview on live radio. She was left alone to do the run without him in a strange new world.  The Showwoman endures. A favourite Showwoman of Brighton seaside entertainment a little later, who you also might not have heard of, was Winifred Atwell. Originally from Trinidad she was a huge star in the 1950s. A pianist known for her fast ragtime and honky-tonk style hits, she sold over 20 million records and was the first black artist to have a number-one hit in the UK Singles Chart and remains the first female instrumentalist to do so. 

In Carnesky’s Showwomxn Sideshow Spectacular you enter a street in a downtown neighbourhood of central Brighton, tucked just behind the station. There you will find a series of strange sideshows with women performing extraordinary feats and surreal choreographies, embodying perhaps the ghosts of the Showwomen that came before us. There are also storytellers – exploring these lesser known, or forgotten, or undocumented lives and acts of incredible Showwomen in relation to our own stories and experiences. 

There is a wrestling ring with a match by some of the best women wrestlers in the UK today who know how to fight. There is a mysterious troupe of performers that have appeared, Mr Ben like, from a dressing room of the past – who are guiding you through the labyrinth of performances. There are the most unbelievable aerialists including hair hangers who fly suspended only from their heads.

We are all very different but when we come together, we offer you a unique walk-through promenade show like no other. We channel our ‘shedesseors’ to create new visions of spectacular matriarchal utopias. We make a new kind of herstory and we hope that we bring the glory days of variety entertainment back to life, with new all womxn voices, untold stories and a Showwomxnly spectacle like no other. 

Showwxmen Sideshow Spectacular by Holly Revell 2

So, without further ado I present to you: 

The Showwomxn, The Showwomxn, The Showwomxn!

Marisa Carnesky brings together a group of highly-skilled, diverse women and non-binary performers for the ground-breaking Carnesky’s Showwomxn Sideshow Spectacular – which comes to Brighton’s Elder Place on Sat 25 – Sun 26 May, as part of Brighton Festival 2024. 

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