A violent incident in Soho last month may have signalled the end of London’s red light district as we know it.
Just after midnight on 24 October, security staff at legendary venue Madame Jojo’s and sister club Escape were involved in a violent altercation with a customer. According to a police report, bouncers at the club pulled baseball bats hidden in black bin liners, to take on assailants who were throwing glass bottles at them.
As a result of the incident, Madame Jojo’s licence was suspended by Westminster Council on police advice and the place closed down. Shows were moved to nearby The Shadow Lounge while an appeal was prepared. The club made several changes to middle management to accommodate council concerns, yet this was to no avail. The appeals panel considered representations from all sides — including venue owner Soho Estates, more on which below — before taking less than 10 minutes to make up their minds and revoke Madame Jojo’s premises licence.
It is unlikely that the Soho joint will appeal the decision. The fates of long-running shows there like Cabaret Roulette, House of Burlesque, Finger In The Pie and Tranny Shack are up in the air.
The cabaret community is not taking this latest news lightly. A petition asking for the council to give Madame Jojo's their licence back has been set up with over 4,400 signatures so far. On Saturday, the community will hold a typically flamboyant lunchtime vigil outside the venue ("Dresscode: peace party vigil. Think black. Think Veils. Think Peace. Bring candles. Bring banners. IT'S SHOWTIME").
However, this isn't the first claim of problems at the club. More than one promoter at the club had complained to the management about the security staff’s attitude towards patrons.
Although known for burlesque, Madame Jojo’s promoted regular nights catering to gay and transgender audiences. Earlier this year, cabaret doyenne and self-styled “tranny with a fanny” Holestar held a series of shows there based around screenings of the latest season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. She told Londonist: “The sad loss of yet another brilliant and iconic venue could have been avoided if the complaints about the aggressive and homophobic door staff were tackled properly.”
The events at Madame Jojo’s come at a fortuitous time for Soho Estates, owner of the building. In May, the company — run by descendants of the “King Of Soho” Paul Raymond — received approval for major redevelopment in the Brewer Street area above, in front of and around the nightclub. The works which encompass demolition and a new double-height bridge in Walkers Court will be started within the next three years. The plans are online and contain a number of ominous proposals.
Top of the bill is glass-fronted “new and improved office accommodation” and “high quality residential accommodation”. According to the plans, the area will become “a new cultural destination” (which will make it really stand out in the middle of Soho) featuring high-profile nightclub, The Box.
More pertinently to Madame Jojo’s, its owner seeks to “secure an overall transformation of Walker’s Court in order to drive out anti-social and criminal uses” and the “removal of the majority of sex-related uses”, the latter being ironic considering how the late Raymond made his money. We’re not sure where strip joints feature on the “den of iniquity” scale but, given these ambitions, it may be to Soho Estates' advantage not having Madame Jojo’s on the doorstep of its new project.
This is the latest closure in London’s cabaret land — many venues are being affected by gentrification and the economic climate. There are worries about the sale of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and its upcoming partial conversion into a wine bar. A number of Proud Cabaret companies including Proud Cabaret Brighton Ltd and Proud Cabaret City Ltd were wound up in 2013 following an internal re-organisation.
Ladbroke Grove’s Supperclub closed its doors last year, as did east London’s The Brickhouse and Volupté, though the latter has returned with a limited number of shows. The Joiner’s Arms is not renewing its lease and will close its doors for good in January. Even those high profile purveyors of theatrical cabaret at The Box who charge thousands of pounds per table have been reported as being millions of pounds in debt.