The ‘second album’ to the company’s cult sell-out, Briefs: Close Encounters is tighter and more artistically ambitious than its antecedent. Outside of the ensemble numbers though, momentum and fluidity is not always sustained – and the choreography of the individual acts is unfortunately not quite as imaginative as the outfits.
Australian collective The Briefs Factory have a knack for making you feel intensely excited during their presets. In real terms, little more than campy lighting, unadulteratedly cheesy music and glitter in the usher’s hair are keeping you entertained before the performers arrive – but the company consistently manages to create and sustain pre-show atmospheres far greater than the sum of those parts.
That feeling of immense anticipation was undeniable when I saw their debut show back in 2013. The same was loud and clear only a couple of weeks ago, when I slipped into the Theatre tent to catch the Hot Brown Honey galdem storm Latitude. And it’s present, once again, the moment you step into the Spiegeltent for Briefs: Close Encounters: the company’s long-awaited ‘second album’ after their original all-male drag, boylesque and circus fusion become an Edinburgh (and cult) favourite. Perhaps they sprinkle LSD into the air, and it somehow finds its way into our bloodstreams. Perhaps they just spike our drinks. I don’t know. But that pre-show feeling is real and, I would say, specific to the collective. I reckon everyone in the crowd can feel it.
When the lights come down, Close Encounters starts on about as confident and slick a stride as it could. An impeccably-timed, stonkingly precise (the tech rehearsal must have been LENGTHY) ensemble number that wouldn’t be out of place in Vegas, involving truckloads of feathers and invoking enough of the (now-familiar) RuPaul aesthetic to ensure even the ‘boylesque newbies’ quickly feel at home and initiated in the clan.
It’s clear from this opening number that this new show is tighter and in many ways more artistically ambitious than its antecedent, and I’m not necessarily just talking about budgets here. When the show’s at its very best (the ensemble numbers, for me), proceedings have sharper production values and a slickness that the original Briefs lacked (or perhaps consciously rejected). Paul Lim’s lighting design in particular plays a significant part in this.
Outside of the group numbers though, the show often struggles to sustain momentum and fluidity. The energy really feels a little start-stop sometimes, like you’re on an eclectic rollercoaster which jolts or needs a power reset every 6 to 7 minutes. I completely appreciate you need quieter moments in any variety show or it’d be intense for the audience and exhausting for the performers, but Fez Faanana (the show’s MC, and – incidentally – director) comes across as jarringly low-energy and softly-spoken at times. His introductory speech is also a little trite and uninspired – I feel like I’ve heard the ‘despite all the crap going on in this world, we must stay positive and look to the future…tonight, we are your safe place’ line about a hundred times in the last 12 months. It inevitably gets a clap of support, but seems disappointingly unoriginal for a show that has such a bold and unique aesthetic.
The moments relating to the raffle are also particularly notable examples of slightly ill-judged artistic decisions disrupting momentum. I understand its presence is a ‘Briefs’ tradition, but both the buying of tickets and picking out of names come across as real lull moments (and needn’t have been). They are, of course, all leading up to the ‘prize’, but when that happens (a slightly predictable, and not-quite-long-enough-to-be-a-section-in-itself ensemble lap dance for the winner), it’s a little Butlins. There’s plenty of ways to make all moments relating to the raffle fit seamlessly into the main show (and have the same edge as other moments) – why couldn’t the aerialist select the winning ticket whilst toe-hanging off the suspended cage, for example – but I don’t feel the company have found an effective solution yet. The moments feel somewhat unimaginative and tacked on.
A couple of the solo sequences stand out head-and-shoulders above the rest, usually due to those particular performers engaging the audience far more successfully than others rather than necessarily level of technical skill. I wouldn’t say the circus offering in the show is anything above or beyond any of this year’s other Underbelly Southbank’s other offerings – if anything, the choreography and routines often actually lack the imagination of Catch Me or Driftwood. But the audience admittedly isn’t really there for that – it’s the way they dress (and un-dress during) these acts which is the USP of Briefs: Close Encounters. Highlights include Louis Biggs’s juggling act (he’s by far the most successful with audience eye contact and both reading and responding to the crowd – it’s incredible how much it lifts his act in relation to the others) and Mark Winmill’s hula-hopping finale (a frankly quite extraordinary demonstration of a multiplicity of talents – the only issue is it makes some of the others look fairly mediocre).
For those who’ve never seen boylesque or drag/circus fusion before, Briefs: Close Encounters will leave a lasting impression. It’s an excellent time to release a new show – the continued rise in popularity and familiarity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, increasingly with straight audiences now as well as LGBT+ ones, is giving the art form a fresh and topical profile. But if one compares it to similar recent shows – Blanc de Blanc, for example, at the Leicester Square Hippodrome – it may excel in terms of sheer costume and technical production values, but is quite notably lacking in inventiveness and fluidity of the stagecraft.