Dear Santa Brings Burlesque to the Lyric Theatre

Burlesque artist Rosie McClelland on 'circus, cabaret and corsets' this Christmas

There is a great scene at the end of the film of The Right Stuff that goes a little something like this.

Test pilots who have made the grade to become the first US astronauts are attending a gala dinner. In the company of other dignitaries, they are treated to a performance by the burlesque star of the time, Sally Rand.

Backlit, she moves slowly, alluringly, through a smoky blue haze. Her fan of feathers flutter and twirl. The astronauts look on in awe. Rand is captivating. It seems, in that moment, that her beguiling dance symbolises the wonder and promise of the new frontier.

Kilkeel actress Rosie McClelland wants to bring some of that magic to Belfast this Christmas with a little help from the Lyric Theatre. For three naughty nights this month her show, Dear Santa, promises audiences circus, cabaret and corsets. It's festive, but not as we know it.

‘When I thought of Dear Santa I thought of the Lyric,' says the young actress. ‘The new Lyric aims to cater to all other arts, and here was an opportunity to bring burlesque, circus and an all round cabaret to the building. I think it’s wonderful that they’re giving people this chance to see this kind of show.’

Talking with McClelland, her enthusiasm for and knowledge of burlesque is obvious. She is passionate about almost every era in its varied history: fascinated by its vaudevillian rootes, enamoured with the inventiveness and old school Minsky's charm of the 1930s, inspired by the glamour of Betty Page in the 1950s.

And yet, were it not for the coaxing of a friend who needed help with a previous production, McClelland says she may never have ventured into performing burlesque at all.

‘About three and a half years ago my friend Garth was doing a male rope striptease in the Black Box’s regular burlesque show, The Bedlam Ballroom,' McClelland recalls. 'He asked me to help and I was fine during rehearsals. But when it came to the night, I was backstage going, "No way. No f***ing way!"

'Of course I ended up going ahead with it and caught the bug. It was absolutely terrifying, more so than ever being on stage after. At the same time, the thrill of being up there was amazing.’

McClelland lists a roll call of names that inspire her shows. Names that are once heard, never forgotten: Dita Von Teese, Kiki Kaboom, Catherine D’Lish and the inimitable Jo Boobs. It sounds like a Who’s Who of rejected Bond girls. Yet the tradition of burlesque artists assuming stage names is a long one. The idea, for anyone thinking of taking it up, is to think one part Jessica Rabbit, two parts Marlene Dietrich.

Miss Rose Ann

As a member of the groundbreaking Red Lemon Theatre Company, McClelland has been able to bring her edgy take on Weimar era cabaret to Northern Irish audiences. In order to avoid another pre-performance meltdown, she too adopts a stage name.

‘I overcame nerves by creating the larger than life persona I call Miss Rose Ann. She’s basically an OTT version of myself,' says McClelland. 'I think coming from a theatre background helps me. I need to know the character and have a storyline, and to know where to stand on each beat. I definitely take an actor’s approach, but that’s what works for me.’

In today’s society there is an increasing pressure on girls and women to conform to a certain (and, many would argue, an unreachable) physical ideal. It must require some unshakable body confidence to stand before a room full of strangers and strip down to your sequined skimpies.

‘I’m not confident about my body in the slightest,’ McClelland confesses. ‘I’m never 100% happy with my body. No woman is. But when I’m on stage doing the burlesque routines I’ve never felt better about myself and my body. The wonderful thing about burlesque is that you can be any shape and size and it doesn’t matter. Burlesque is about working your own body.’

Burlesque may be artful and engaging in its creative and potent mix of choreography, performance and costume, but at its very core, no matter how you dress it up, it still objectifies women. What would the burlesque dancer say to those who insist it demeans the female of the species?

‘You get a lot of people who say that, but women are so drawn to it these days that most of the audience is female. There’s an overwhelming amount of people who contact me saying they want to do it too. Burlesque empowers women. I honestly believe every woman should try it at least once. I’m holding newbie slots within Dear Santa for people who have never done burlesque to get on stage and give it a go.’

Featuring aerial acts, circus routines, a cabaret band, a belly dancer and something called strapping (I am honestly afraid to ask what that is), not to mention burlesque, Dear Santa is surely one of this Christmas's must see shows anywhere in the country.

But it's not all naughty dance routines and come hither tunes. McClelland assures me that there is something for the intellectual too. After all, for one routine in Dear Santa, McClelland borrows inspiration from a production of Shakespeare.

‘I was in Oxford watching a Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ she explains, ‘and an actor used finger lights as fairies, so now I use finger lights too.' And the name of the routine? 'The routine,' she confides, leaning in close, one eyebrow firmly raised, 'is Naughty Little Nymphs.’

Dear Santa runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from December 21 – 23.