Sunday, 30 March 2008

Weirdest. Freaking. Sunday. Ever.

So I went to a club today. I'm not normally a club-kinda-guy, but on special occasions, I can be badgered into it. I'm not totally anti-club, since I enjoy shouting along with 80s songs as much as the next guy, but the combination of the expense, the claustrophobia, the physical abuse and the noise and prevention of normal conversation make the whole thing generally unappealing.

As I said, I'm not beyond being persuaded to engage in club-based festivities for a special occasion, and have previously been found in such places on the occasion of a friend's birthday. This is the situation I found myself in again today, as I made my way across London to Kentish Town, for 'Church'. Originally a weekly loose gathering of antipodeans, the event has developed into a more structured show open to all nationalities (although with a distinctly Aussie/Kiwi/SA feel to it). I'd never heard of it before, and had no real idea what to expect, which is possibly one of the reasons why the events of the day made such an impact on me, but I ended up in one of the most surreal four-hour chunks of time I have ever experienced. In any case, I'll describe the experience as best I can remember, and hopefully the bizarre events will speak for themselves.
The event was held in what looked like an old theatre or cinema, 'The Forum', and doors opened at midday. We payed the £7 entrance and £1 cloakroom fees, and made our way into the club, a single huge room with a stage and dancefloor at the front, multi-level standing room towards the back, and two bars, one on each side. The bars themselves were run with a 'beer ticket' system, with one £7.50 ticket allowing you to purchase 3 cans of beer or (opened) bottles of alcopops. The beers were handed to you in a clear plastic bag (to allow you to keep hold of them through the night), and there were also cans of coke and bottles of water available for 50p. While this system was clearly doing no damage to the club's income, forcing people to buy their alcohol in bulk, and (by opening all bottles on purchase) ensuring quick drinking, there was also the beneficial side effect that people's bar trips were much shorter and easier, and so there was never any wait to be served at the bar, a nice change from the normal club experience.
With drinks in hand, then, we investigated the main club area. The stage was large and backed with the grammatically questionable phrase "The Church. Still rocking since 1979", and the dance floor in front of it was slowly filling up. There were two huge screens on either side of the stage, and at least two cameras providing crowd shots that were projected onto them. This provide an interesting focal point to gaze at, as well as the occasional moment of terror as the camera passed over you and you saw yourself on one of the huge screens. The cameramen weren't interested in people standing around trying to have civilized conversations, of course, and focused mainly on people in fancy dress (of whom there were many), people drinking (thus encouraging them to down their drinks), and girls with short skirts and low cut tops (thus encouraging them to expose themselves further). In any case, during the actual show itself, the cameras were mostly focussed on the stage, to provide an alternate point of view for anyone who couldn't see clearly.

The music level cranked up slowly, until the atmosphere was that of an actual club, and most people were engaged in singing and dancing (and eating pies; there was a pie shop at the back of club; did I not mention that?). Occasionally we reminded each other incredulously that it was, in fact, half past one on a Sunday afternoon. At this point, however, some weirdness began to creep into the proceedings. Firstly, there was some activity on the stage, with spotlights and smoke machines, and a ticket was drawn to win some free beer. Then, there were a couple of announcements, and a large man in a leather jacket arrived onstage to sing (or sing-along to, or mime, it was never totally clear) a number of old favourites. This was no problem - we all sang along with him and wondered if there was a karaoke element to the evening (sorry, afternoon). During his songs, however, he slowly began to remove more and more clothing, exposing one by one a stars-and-stripes top and some striped trousers, a spandex singlet (that left nothing to the imagination) and finally a pair of boxer shorts. Throughout this he leapt around the stage, exposed various bits of his anatomy, insulted various audience members, and generally acted like a 5-year-old who wants attention. So far, so strange. His act came to a close (as it became clear that he was not, in fact, going to leap naked into the crowd [to the crowd's great relief]), and he introduced the next act.
The second act turned out to be 'Cayman', a young lady who proceeded to demonstrate both her flexibility (impressive) and her willingness to remove her clothes in front of an audience (also impressive). Having never seen a strip show, I can't really comment on the relative merits of her performance, but it seemed pretty professional, and she certainly ticked the box of removing items of clothing in time to music, ending in just a thong and boots. Not expecting anything of the sort from the afternoon's entertainment, we were somewhat taken aback, naturally, but applauded her efforts. She then proceeded to produce a (male) volunteer from somewhere and got him onstage, where she both performed a lap dance for him (during which she removed almost all of his clothes) and used him to simulate a number of different sex acts (with enough energy to seemingly risk serious pelvic trauma). It was unclear whether he was a member of the crowd, or a fellow performer, but he seemed to have no problem when she partially removed his boxer shorts, covered him in whipped cream and them beat him with a belt and a whip, or when she blindfolded him and poured freezing cold water over him. This was not what we had expected from our Sunday afternoon (even with the previous events viewed), and we took the opportunity to go and get another drink.
As Cayman tied up her act, the club returned to normal business, and despite our shock at the strange things going on onstage, we were able to enjoy another excellent set of 80s music. Shortly, however, Cayman was back (or another girl very like her), dressed as a schoolgirl. She performed what seemed to be the same strip-tease as before, before putting her top back on, and getting another (male) volunteer up on stage. Again, she performed a lap dance for him, stripping him down to his boxers. In a confusing few minutes, she then turned him around and set fire to his boxers with an aerosol and lighter several times, before lighting a line of fire on the stage with lighter fluid and appearing to suggest that he do something manly and reckless involving the flames, before someone official stepped on and told her to put it out. It was not clear if this was part of the act, or if something had gone wrong. Nevertheless, her volunteer got dressed again and returned from whence he came. Cayman (or whoever it was), then performed a further strip, ending up in just her boots, at which point she began wandering up and down the stage, juggling fire poi. This, by now, did not seem out of place, and we all just accepted that it was happening in as blasé a fashion as one can when a naked girl is dancing with rings of fire 40 yards away.
After this point, the show begins to blur together, but there were other drinking games and competitions for crowd members onstage, in which girls could gain an advantage to herself or her team by exposing her breasts to the audience. There was also more drinking and dancing and singing, and plenty of the usual club business of people fighting (mostly with inflatable hammers and foam swords), burning each other with lighters, throwing alcohol everywhere and forming momentary amorous attachments. Before long, however, the house lights came up, and we traversed the sticky floors to emerge, blinking, into the blinding glare of 4pm Sunday evening.
I said at the beginning that I'm not really a club-person, and that in general there are many activities I would rather do than go to a club. This experience, however, seems to be so bizarre, so weird, so unusual, that I can't really classify it in my head as a club experience. The other patrons seemed entirely au fait with the various performances, so I suppose a lot of the shock and strangeness of it comes from my own inexperience with the club and with the type of entertainment offered. Even taking that into account, though, the afternoon has already taken on a dreamlike atmosphere in my mind, as I begin to question whether parts of it really happened or not, so outside my realm of normal experiences they were.

In any case, if the weird hedonism of an afternoon like that sounds appealing, head over to the Church in Kentish Town, and give it a try yourself. I think their show (and less frequently their location) changes, so I can't promise you'll have the same experience, but if it's anything close, it should be a memorable one.

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