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December 8, 2010

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Ringmaster's past in theater of war

WHEN the spotlight illuminates the stage at Shanghai's decadent burlesque club, Gosney and Kallman's Chinatown, the first thing the audience sees is the towering top hat-wearing figure of British actor Charlie Mayer.

As the host, he is the ringmaster of the lacy and racy, the suavely stylish and the batty vaudeville show staged four-nights-a-week at the club housed in a former Buddhist temple in Hongkou District.

Since the club opened in October last year, Mayer has been a central figure in the performances, appearing as a ragged street urchin, Uncle Sam, the Mad Hatter and a disarmingly charming devil for various themed events at the club.

"My definition of burlesque is something to do with talent, where the audience thinks I can't do that, and it's sexy and it's part of the story and it's funny," Mayer said.

"I am feeding it along, keeping the link between the story and the audience."

But it was the deadly dangers of war rather than the wisp of a feather boa that once focused the mind of this former officer in the British army.

Following a long family tradition of serving in the armed forces, Mayer joined the British army in the early 1990s.

Within a week of graduating from the Sandhurst Military Academy, Mayer was sent to lead a platoon of soldiers in Northern Ireland for two years.

He served in the dangerous border areas of Northern Ireland when the Irish Republican Army re-ignited their armed resistance.

"None of the people I was responsible for got hurt," he said.

"I remember finishing the last patrol of a two-year tour and being lifted off by helicopter and landing in the base again thinking nobody died, nobody got hurt. The feeling of relief was amazing."

Mayer returned for another two years to Northern Ireland during the sectarian riots of the late 1990s, describing it as "one massive medieval battle with homemade weapons."

His 10 years of service in the army included two years' performing ceremonial duties as part of the famed Queen's Guard.

It was being a deskbound officer that made Mayer decide to forge a life outside the army.

"I was in an office, and I was this fat-arsed officer with no soldiers anymore and it took so much of the fun away, all I had was: 'Charlie, I asked for this thing this morning, why isn't it done'?" he said.

"I wanted to do something again that really gripped my soul."

He chose to go into acting saying the theater has much of the same "warmth and family feel" of the army.

In 2002, he applied to five of the top acting schools in London, and was accepted into four of them, eventually choosing Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

"The self discovery was huge. I didn't really know who I was when I left the army, other than I was an army guy," Mayer says of his time at the drama school.

Unlike many struggling actors, Mayer gained some high-profile gigs in his first two years out of Guildhall, picking up parts in the British television shows "Spooks" and "Hotel Babylon," as well as appearing in a production on the West End.

It was while appearing in the West End production of "Bent" with Alan Cumming that he started his first step toward coming to Shanghai via the unlikely route of New York.

A friend of Chinatown founder Norman Gosney had spotted him in the play and on a subsequent visit to New York he organized a meeting with Gosney.

At the time Gosney was running a debauched speakeasy in an abandoned warehouse in the meatpacking district of New York, complete with rubber-clad waiters and a weirdly wonderful burlesque show.

Mayer got the gig as host of Chinatown and arrived in Shanghai in 2008.

In addition to his Master of Ceremony duties at Chinatown he has also appeared in a number of films and theatrical productions.

Often cast as the villain, his best-known role came this year when he played a corrupt Hong Kong police officer in Ip Man 2 starring Sammo Hung.

The big budget kung fu film was shown in cinemas across Asia.

Other film roles have included a philandering husband in "Greys Inbetween," a megalomaniac gangster in comedy "The Ultimate Truth" and he has a major part in "Shanghai Chill," an independent film directed by Eric Heise.

Mayer has also acted in a number of locally produced short films, as well as written and directed his own short film "Against all Odds," which was shown at last year's Meiwenti Shanghai Short Film Competition.

An active member of the local theater scene, Mayer is an associate producer for the Shanghai Repertory Theater Company and played Bob Cratchit in the company's inaugural production, a performance of "A Christmas Carol." He also played the villain in 5th Wall Production's "A Taste of Red."

Sitting in a booth in Chinatown, Mayer reflects that two years in Shanghai has given him what many actors spend a lifetime trying to achieve, namely regular work and a theater to call home.

"The glory about being in Shanghai is that you can work as an actor without having a day job," he said.

"The overheads are low. I have a regular gig and I have an apartment that is paid for. So, you are protected the whole time by this wonderful family here at Chinatown. It is just like the army where you are protected and supported so you can do what you do best."

Mayer will appear in the Chinatown production of Michael Frayn's comedy "Noises Off" from yesterday to December 15 at 8pm. There will also be matinee performances on December 11 and 12 at 2pm.

Tickets are available from

Charlie Mayer

Nationality: British

Profession: Actor

Age: 40


Self-description: Low-budget decadante.

Favorite place: At home with my family in Chinatown.

Strangest sight: Two cats pull a Chihuahua in a carriage down the street.

Motto for life: Always be indispensable.

Worst experience: Slipping over in the wet market's fish section.

How to improve Shanghai: Improve this?

Advice to newcomers: Shanghai lets you be yourself; celebrate it.


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