Anyone familiar with Bunga Bunga’s Battersea operation will be able to call to mind the madcap, anarchic karaoke-Italian joint’s take-no-prisoners approach to dining, dancing, and debauchery. After all, it’s part of the Inception Group portfolio of themed munching and quaffing options around London – a list which includes Maggie’s, a 1980s-styled members’ club which screams “night ready to go wonderfully wrong”, and, more recently, Cahoots, the Blitz-spirit speakeasy, hiding during the blackout in the fictional but convincing Kingly Court tube station.
Bunga Bunga is spreading, though, and this year the Covent Garden location has been the centre of attention, setting up shop on Drury Lane. Above ground, BungaTINI offers Italian café and deli culture in a comparatively chaste and respectable manner, with all-day food, a boozy brunch, and a medium-intensity cocktail menu. Arriving at half seven on a Wednesday, though, there was an anticipative, slightly uneasy, peripheral-glance-filled atmosphere. There’s something lurking below.
After gently sipping a cocktail, the “Peroni Negroni” – which is, as it says on the tin, topped up with a spritz of lager on draught – we were hastily hustled through an unmarked door in the back of the joint. It was the obligatory secret entrance to the real party. After some brief stand-offs with Silvio’s henchmen (seemingly drawn from the diaspora of the famiglia, with accents and characters hailing from both sides of the Atlantic), the back staircase proved rather glitzier than the average fire escape, with chandelier and gold trim. We were in.
The Icone signature cocktails seemed the perfect place to start, and the “Bunga Bunga” and “Godfather” arrived in vessels modelled on the heads of their namesakes. The former was quite the fruit salad, but I knew what I was getting into with Ting on the ingredient list. Just as our first course arrived, a hearty plankful of the usual antipasti suspects, so did the opening of the night’s entertainment.
While we are ostensibly guests in Silvio Berlusconi’s latest saucy celebration, and he is king of his fantasy world, it’s his long-suffering wife, Veronica, who holds the reins, acting as narrator and stunning vocal diva throughout, gradually unravelling the tale of her husband’s entertaining indiscretions. Her tired-of-his-shit tone is the perfect counterpoint to the erotic, and sometimes plain silly, escapades old Silvio finds himself in, through pieces which feel snipped straight out of the Smooth Criminal music video (except with female gangsters, and no children peeking in, thank the Lord), a bedsheet-tangled three-way with an invitation for an audience member to become the fourth, and eventually a feather fan dance to that sultry, smoking, slow-dance version of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love.
Immersive is the order of the day. While there is a stage, which acts as the point of departure and conclusion for most of the cabaret capers, a more central platform ensures that the core of the action takes place in the round. Leave your hang-ups at home, as you can expect the most carnal of caresses in your seat, or even, as my overwhelmed and blushing dining partner discovered, a firm invitation for her to grasp something else rather firm.
Silvio honestly breaks through from burlesque to opera buffa in a scandalous confession scene, begging the Virgin Mary to understand his sinful ways. Can Berlusconi be redeemed, and come out of it all wearing nothing but a victorious smile, or will the scorned Veronica be his final undoing, as she becomes increasingly assertive, eyeing up a little “bunga bunga” of her own? It would be a breach of omertà to detail proceedings any further. You’ll have to head to Drury Lane on a Wednesday night to find out.
The food and drink service is incredibly attentive, yet unobtrusive, which is a hard balance to strike, not least when you’re working between outbursts of choreographed performance in the aisles. Bunga Bunga’s signature metre-long pizzas are everywhere, and, in case you are uninitiated and fear the size to be indicative of some unrefined, stodgy Americanism, fear not – they’re light and lovely.
You’ll get a blue-infused quattro formaggi, a salami, but all you really need to think about is the effortlessly delicious combination of mozzarella, prosciutto crudo, and rocket, dwelling in the middle. By the time you’re choosing between panna cotta and tiramisu, the tiny pots they come in are all you could possibly need, full of food and fantastical spectacle. Cocktail-wise, I naturally had to order an Old Fashioned, which was so-so, but stick to the adventurous (and humorous) house specials and you’ll be in good hands. The Cocchi Bastardo was a sour revelation.
Burlesquoni’s opening night was a smooth-running success, and promises great things for future crowds. Little touches, from the thought that’s gone into the route taken down from ground level to Silvio’s crucible of sin, to bits of the bathroom, to the up-to-the minute political references, are the icing on top of an already polished piece of theatrical entertainment, deserving of its location amongst West End shows. Bunga Bunga say that burlesque is the natural way to tell the story they’ve built their whole brand around, and they’re right. It’s profanity, farce, boobs, bums – but it’s also sharp, satirical, and, at times, artistic, beautiful. For Italian that’s less pasta, more pasties, Burlesquoni is the most stylish and classy interpretation you’ll ever find of such wonderful, utter Eurotrash.
Photos: Poppy McKenzie Smith