Marilyn would be at home here
Proud Cabaret harks back to a golden ages of dining and entertainment
Marilyn Monroe. There’s a name you just don’t hear any more – a starlet of yesteryear who briefly shimmered, and now has fallen into the abyss of oblivion. A forgotten name that resonates with no one today: I cannot recall the last time I saw anything about her in print, and it’s even very difficult to track down a picture of her, these days. Yes, I must be the last person standing to remember and adore dear and fabulous Marilyn: sad, really. So imagine my excitement when, logging on to the Proud Cabaret website, I saw images of a damned convincing lookalike, miming to Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend. Right, I thought – that alone will be worth the price of admission. So I phoned them, and was passed from one polite woman to a second, and then a third. My booking was taken, along with a �20 deposit – not unreasonable really, for in Proud Cabaret we have that wonderfully old-fashioned (and therefore very welcome) notion of dinner in a red and softly lit place, with a floorshow to skewer your interest: so the management doesn’t want no-shows. Then they asked me to pre-order three courses for myself and my guest, which I thought was really going it, so I gracefully declined.
There’s a lot of Proud in Stables Market, Chalk Farm. A pride of Prouds: an art gallery, a restaurant, bar and – in addition to the Cabaret – a throbbing and late-night club, for when Camden lets its hair down (though when, I ask you, is Camden’s hair ever tightly in a bun?). The rather charming, louche and cobbled Stables Market is so called because here is where the horses used to be sequestered in the old days, and the Cabaret is held in the building where they were sent when they were poorly: the horse hospital. It is a pitch roofed intimate space hung with scarlet fabric made cosy by red spotlights. Behind the black leather banquettes are crystal sconces with red silk shades: you either like all this or you don’t. I did. And you definitely want a booth here, and not a table on the central floor. Unless, of course, you wish to be the butt of the saucy female compere’s every joke, not to say the handy repository for airily discarded feathered boas, sequin underpinnings and even the odd caress. Which you maybe do: who am I to say?
I was escorted to my table by an elegant and beautifully spoken young lady who was dressed in house style: a corselet that laced up the back and black knickers and tights which still contrived to sport a set of dangling suspenders. Well right-o, then. My guest for the evening was Adrian Bridge, a travel writer for the Daily Telegraph. And although of course I am aware that the food here is really wholly not the point, nonetheless the menu is clever in its brevity (five choices for each course) and also for cleaving to the stuff that people know they like to eat. So I order Parma ham with watermelon and a celeriac roulade – which was just three little curls of ham, any subtlety obliterated by balsamic, nice crunchy triangles of melon and not so much a celeriac roulade as an interleaving of industrial coleslaw. Adrian did better with his four pan fried scallops – good and juicy – with a white onion puree, peas and pancetta.
And what was going on as we ate our starters ...? I’ll tell you: a warm-up bloke with a guitar. Have you heard of James Blunt? Have you heard of Ed Sheeran? Well I am here to tell you that he was even more awful – hard to believe, I know, but there you have it. High pitched whining and irrelevant strumming. Then he would asthmatically cough into the microphone like Rolf Harris so very annoyingly does, this producing a sound somewhere between a locomotive in trouble and one of the poor old nags with the staggers that they used to cart into this very building. The manageress – charming, attentive – came over to see that everything was all right. Everyone was so terribly caring – really needing to please you: and no, they didn’t know I was a reviewer. For his main, Adrian wanted rack of lamb, rare. She explained that this couldn’t be done (and it was, to be fair, an odd request) I suspect because everything here is previously par-cooked so that the service can dovetail with the performances. She said she would serve it medium, and if he didn’t like it, replace it with his second choice of sea bass. Such an offer in any restaurant, believe me, is singular beyond words. I had three tender slices of beef fillet with very good chips. The Bearnaise ... well I’ve had much worse, but it was very sharp with too much white wine vinegar. Adrian’s lamb came, was deemed too well done ... and within minutes he was enjoying a succulent tranche of sea bass (with dumplings, rather weirdly) and we were sharing decent peas, beans and spinach.
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But look ...! A spotlight is on our compere! A lady in a short red sequined dress and outsized spectacles who is called Mrs Delicious! Yay! “Welcome to Proud Cabaret!” she called to us. “I am here to fluff you up ...!”. And so the show began ... and it was really rather terrific. An ash blonde in a very soign�e gown as designed by Erte and those wonderful long gloves was sinuous on the little stage, and peeled away layers in the way they used to: teasingly, and with style. She was succeeded by a terrific torch singer called Bambi ... and then there was a bit of an interval, and I looked about me. And here’s a funny thing: of the 45 people there, 36 were female. Later, the manageress told me that the Saturday before, out of an audience of 83 people, 79 were women. I don’t comment, I simply report.
Then there was an act where a bloke ate fire: his mouth was ablaze as he sucked at it – Lordy Lordy! And then he flattened a wire coat hanger and, oh God ... swallowed it, and at the sight of that it was all I could do to get down my very good Neal’s Dairy cheese. And then the fellow was juggling five very pointy daggers. Grief. And throughout all the acts, women were going off to the lavatory: none of them moved during either interval. Then another glamorous girl removed most of her clothes (tasselated pasties are big here – well, really quite small actually). The music was pulsating, and the few male waiters wore mascara and Boy George ringlets and whooped a lot. Then Bambi was back for a final song ... and rather surprised everyone, I think, by chucking her clothes off while she did it: you never got that with Streisand, did you? Or our own dear Mary Hopkin.
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We had a whale of a time. The booze is sensibly priced, everyone is friendly and there is no hint of sleaze; the cost of dinner and the show was �49, though I think there are offers available. My only sadness ...? Marilyn wasn’t there. Poor, sweet Marilyn – totally forgotten, just as I said.
Proud Cabaret, The Horse Hospital, Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road NW1. Tel 020 7482 3867