Come to the cabaret . . . on an evening train from London (and back)

Apr 1, 2024 5:01 pm | News

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This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to London

“The thing is”, our fabulous six-foot drag-queen host Rainbow confides, voluminous red wig scraping along the carriage ceiling, “we’re doing cabaret on a train. You’ve got to lean in or it’s going to be a long night.” 

Unclear whether the instruction was meant physically — a burlesque dancer will shortly do the splits in the aisle — or mentally, I immediately do both. I am the cabaret performer’s best friend, laughing uproariously, performatively reacting to every movement. No one has ever been as delighted by close-up magic (this is not hard: I genuinely love magic shows).

Drag queen Rainbow, wearing a green silk gown and curly red wig, on the platform beside the Belmond British Pullman
Drag host Rainbow greets guests boarding the Belmond British Pullman . . .  © The Other Richard
A man in a tuxedo doing a trick with playing cards on board the Belmond British Pullman
 . . . where the evening’s performers include a card sharp, burlesque dancers and a tarot reader © Poppy Thorpe

If we had to define the singular British approach to entertainment, the quality that separates this nation from the rest, surely it would be our enthusiasm for willingly suspending disbelief. Which other population so eagerly abandons its core values of awkward self-consciousness to scream “he’s behind you” at a great thespian in bloomers dropping double entendres like the hard-boiled sweets being hurled into the auditorium? 

Truly, a buttoned-up nation able to re-enter the nursery at a second’s notice in the name of entertainment seems to sum up a certain era of British life. And where better to recreate it than a restored 1920s luxury train?

The Belmond British Pullman train seen from a distance travelling across a viaduct in the Kent countryside, with fields, woods and hills behind it
The Belmond British Pullman will travel into the Kent countryside during the Carriage Club evening © Richard James Taylor

The Carriage Club is a high-concept bet from the Belmond British Pullman train, which generally runs a more sedate experience than its flashier continental sibling the Orient Express — for those who like their Poirot a bit more Miss Marple, and in Derbyshire rather than eastern Europe. A trip to Chatsworth or Bath, perhaps, or a delightful champagne afternoon tea. But this new experience, which starts running from May and is a collaboration with Private Drama Events, an immersive theatre company, is an altogether more exotic affair: a glamorous, 1930s-inspired dinner and a show on an evening train, from London Victoria Station to Kent and back, aimed purely at creating an atmosphere of camp excess. Like any other immersive experience, it is going to be exactly as excruciating or delightful as you allow it to be. 

A man in a striped white suite singing in one of the train’s carriages while guest applaud him
The Carriage Club is styled on a 1930s cabaret © Poppy Thorpe

As a veteran of the masked, underdressed Macbeth/Vertigo fever dream Sleep No More and an evening spent in an abandoned office building in Camden pretending to be a member of the 1979 Labour government, I flatter myself a pro. But there are, at first glance, challenging elements. I personally find little more traditionally British than dressing up in finery to sip Kentish wine while sniggering at some silliness just outside of zone six. The vibes are somewhere between Wes Anderson (who designed the carriage in which we sit) and slapstick comedian Les Dawson and are amazingly successful, perhaps because of the conspiratorial approach. You might think that you cannot bear the intimacy of an at-seat tarot reading, but surrounded by an old-fashioned sense of glitz and occasion it feels like the perfect mix of wholesome and rather daring, darling. It helps that the tarot reader, the Red Queen, is bitingly funny, and the screams of hilarity she generates among the tables of six friends behind us compel even my companion, the least willingly immersive participant in the history of theatre, to join in. 

A woman at a dining table on the train wearing silver shoes, red stockings and a black dress
The evening offers ‘an old-fashioned sense of glitz and occasion . . . 
A line of performers, including burlesque dancers and the drag queen, leaving one of the carriages on the train
. . . in an atmosphere of camp excess’ © Poppy Thorpe (2)

Last year, my sister and I fulfilled our heartfelt and life-long dream of a little trip on the Orient Express, and there is a key moment where no matter how much you determine you’re going to love it, you do wonder whether you can possibly justify spending that much money on a two-day train journey. How can you not feel like an idiot? It’s bound to be a bit naff right? A bit overdone?

Wrong. Because the thing about Belmond trains is the staff. People who’ve been walking these corridors since the Contessa picked up her first arsenic. They love their jobs, they are so proud of their historically significant luxury rolling stock and they’re bursting with facts about where you are, and why it’s special. On the Orient Express, a train manager sat down with us for several minutes to explain exactly where to stand to see a church high above our heads which, due to the Swiss Alps unfolding around us like an Inception-level event, we would see four minutes later beneath us from the other side of the train. And, unlike a National Trust volunteer, they wait to be asked.

Plates of food and a woman’s hand buttering a piece of bread photographed from above
The event includes a five-course dinner . . . 
A bearded, bow-tied sommelier holding wine and champagne glasses
 . . . accompanied by fine wines and champagne © Poppy Thorpe (2)

The same is true on the British Pullman. Keith, the carriage maître d’, will explain the marquetry. Keith will tell you why you’re in the special carriage. Keith will inspire you to seek out hidden symbols in the decor. Keith also ensures you’ve consumed an optimal amount of champagne to still be able to see them while somehow serving you an immaculate five-course dinner with no incident. If the 1930s-inspired food service is compromised slightly by the mime artiste, it hardly matters because Kent Chardonnay and prawn and lobster cocktail are always going to be outshone by two feuding dancers and a gunshot from the next carriage. Keith, I strongly suspect, has lived many lives and in this utterly bonkers and riotous evening is here to make sure everyone gets home safely. 

I might have worried before that the British Pullman was the poor relation of the Belmond family, the train with no murder. But the combination of talented performers being silly and a sincere dedication to showing you a good time is overpowering. When you debark your 4.5 hour tour and lurch on to Victoria Station’s suddenly uneven platform to be whisked home, laughing with your new best friends, you wonder if there’s a more fun evening out within network south-east.

Janine Gibson was a guest of the Belmond British Pullman. The Carriage Club Club runs from May 31; prices from £545 per passenger

Tell us about any immersive theatre you’ve experienced in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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