Tucked out of sight down an alleyway in Soho, the London outpost of The Box would be easily missed by those not in the know.
But patrons whose names are on one of the most exclusive lists in the capital can pass through its etched glass doors into an atmosphere which can only be described as deliberate debauchery.
Within dark-red walls covered in mirrors, visitors find a smattering of transsexuals, a gang of braying bankers and entertainment which would make Peter Stringfellow blush.
It’s not, however, the old Soho world of peepshows. Instead The Box is billed as a ‘theatre of varieties’, a concept which translates as cheap thrills for those with expensive tastes.
The Box started in New York, and that’s where Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz were spotting kissing on Valentine’s Day. The Lower East Side hotspot has also entertained Jude Law, Kanye West, Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga.
Celebrity patrons in London already include Keira Knightley, who reportedly had a naked lapdance from a tattooed male artiste last week, and Prince Harry, who visited last weekend after dinner with on-off girlfriend Chelsy Davy. He was so impressed that, in his capacity as best man for Prince William, he is considering approaching certain acts about performing on his brother’s stag night.
The club has been open for only a matter of weeks and media organisations are banned, but some reporters managed to gain access. They found clients paying around $2,000 for one of the ‘antique-laden’ tables, which feature a menu including seared tuna and Iranian caviar.
According to their report, ‘dance music pumped out of the speakers until 1am, when an American master of ceremonies known as Raven O took to the stage and shouted, “Do all the drugs you want. Do all the cocaine you can. Answer every fetish. Drugs are good”.’
Raven O, tattooed, semi-naked and with his hair fashioned into devil horns, ‘proceeded to introduce a series of acrobats and other performers, who all used nudity and violence throughout their acts.
‘The first man simulated inhaling drugs off the stomach of a scantily clad female while the next performance featured a naked man wearing a pig mask, being set alight by two women.
‘When the main show ends at around 3.30am, a selection of guests are invited upstairs to the VIP area for what is described as a “more titillating” version of the show.’
The cabaret varies every evening. One well-known man about town, Ben Douglas, attended recently and told me, ‘I think you would have to have been pretty far gone to have found it erotic.’
So who’s behind this risqué new venture that so many stars suddenly want to experience?
The answer is Simon Hammerstein, a British public schoolboy with a very famous grandfather.
Oscar Hammerstein II was the lyricist and playwright who with Richard Rogers wrote such musical greats as Oklahoma!, The King and I and The Sound of Music.
His grandson believes he also has a creative contribution to make. He calls it ‘fetish burlesque’, and says that it’s artistically unfettered erotic theatre. ‘Everyone at The Box should feel like it’s a constant bath of Dionysian debauchery,’ opines bearded, fast-talking Hammerstein. ‘That’s what I’m selling: mystique and mystery and sexual openness.’
Born in London in 1977, Hammerstein is the only son of theatre producer Jamie and his third wife Dena, an actress. They sent him to board at the progressive school Bedales in Hampshire…contemporaries recall a self-confident, loud little boy who wore braces on his teeth.
After school he worked for a short time at the National Theatre before moving to New York and immersing himself in the nightclub scene.
He tried to set up a supper club theatre, but found that no one wanted to sit through two hours of drama.
Then he hit upon the idea of a nightclub with adult cabaret, and found that people would sit and buy drinks for hours while waiting to see something risqué on stage.
His backers in New York included Sienna Miller, Jude Law and the British Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz…he had built connections with the London theatre crowd which served him well.
When it opened in February 2007, The Box was the hottest place in the Big Apple. Lindsay Lohan would come and pole dance, Jude and Sienna were regulars. At first it was fairly tame but then the variety show started to feature sex acts along with the musicians and magicians.
Hammerstein said, ‘There were a lot of numbers where I said, “There’s no way we can do this. People are going to throw things at us, and they’re going to be horrified”.’
In fact the excess bred success. Word spread that there was something new to see, and everybody flocked to the club, spending up to $10,000 a night on champagne.
The place acquired a reputation for sexual and chemical excess, customers were reportedly seen having sex and snorting cocaine off their tables.
The scandalous atmosphere did The Box no harm in terms of business, but then came a scandal with two sisters called the Porcelain Twinz in late 2008.
Heather and Amber Langley were discovered by Hammerstein in a club in Oregon. Arriving at The Box late one night, they were ushered in by Hammerstein himself, who offered them cocaine…‘a substance they were to find he had in tall supply’, according to legal documents.
After the audition, the act was renamed Twincest, and at Hammerstein’s suggestion became a performance which involved the sisters performing simulated sex on each other. They later brought a legal action claiming he had pressured them into a threesome with him in July 2008.
The sisters added that he abused his position at the club, promoting female performers who would have sex with him.
Hammerstein settled out of court but denies everything…the drugs, the sex, and the pressure… and says that the twins betrayed him.
The idea for the London branch of The Box came to him two years ago. Well-connected friends including Ben Elliot, nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles, assured him that there would be quite a market for more of the same in the UK.
He also had enthusiastic support from Simon Cowell, who enjoyed an outrageous performance by some of the New York artistes at his 50th birthday party in 2009.
He was granted a licence with ease. A spokesman for Westminster Council says, ‘The licence was granted after consultation with police and other groups; we believe that the operator is reputable and well regarded, and we don’t really have any concerns about it.’
Neither, clearly, do the string of royals and celebrities who have beaten a path to his door.
by Robbo Green