Still Down Under, Adelaide & CabaretDate: 5 July 2004
In his second week in Australia, Mark Shenton wraps up at the conclusion of this year’s fourth annual Adelaide Cabaret Festival. The art form is fun, frisky & flourishing Down Under.
DATED 28 JUNE 2004
I’ve already enthused here about the first week of my first trip Down Under, but the Adelaide Cabaret Festival I’ve been here to enjoy hasn’t just maintained its own momentum but far exceeded it in the second stanza, offering literally breathtaking expressions of the overwhelming intimacy of cabaret but also its wider (and occasionally wilder) joyfully public celebrations.
If the essence of great cabaret is to make the spectator feel like the performance is being directed at them alone in an ecstatic embrace of shared intimacy, then Australian cabaret specialist Robyn Archer’s new solo show, Whispering (pictured), takes this as far as it can possibly go: it’s literally a one-on-one cabaret experience.
You’re led on your own by a uniformed female maitre d’ into a darkened, deserted space, shown to a table and offered a glass of champagne. The only other human presence appears to be a pianist, gently tinkling the ivories in the background. You’re given a menu, which contains a list of 11 songs from which you’re invited to choose to hear one performed. The maitre d’ takes your order – I chose the Gershwin classic, ‘Our Love Is Here to Stay’ - and disappears. Out of the shadows, a singer emerges. She wanders slowly over to the pianist, whispers to him what your choice is, and then comes over and sits down at the table with you, holding your gaze as she begins. She’s so close you can feel her breath as she sings. After a couple of minutes of the most sustained intensity – a transaction that merely comprises a singer, a pianist, a song and you – it goes even further. The singer invites you to dance with her, as she continues singing. When the song concludes, she gestures for you to sit down again, kisses your hand and returns into the shadows once again. (At least that’s what happened to me: this is as personal as cabaret gets, and each interaction could be different).
Archer is a one-of-a-kind cabaret artist, as anyone who was lucky enough to see her bring a one-woman show, A Star is Torn, to London’s Wyndham’s Theatre in 1982 can testify. But while that show superbly recreated some performance greats, from Garland to Holliday, here she distils a lifetime of cabaret experience into as brief, personal, ecstatic and unforgettable an encounter as I think I’ll ever have.
There’s also the shock of the intimate and personal to another festival show, Private Dancer, which has to be the first-ever cabaret show I’ve ever seen in which the performer begins the show stark naked. While many of the best cabaret performers reveal their emotional nakedness, physical nudity is another thing altogether, and its very incongruity detonates a taboo while wittily subverting the forms of burlesque and karaoke in a show that’s part lap-dance, part playful polemic, all addressed with a cheekily engaging smile by Wendy McPhee.
Another unique performance is offered in The Mary G Show, a larger-than-life indigenous Australian who provides a journey of comic as well as cultural reference into the Aboriginal bushland with the touching interventions of partner Baamba – “He’s not much to look at, but he’s all I got”. This is a million miles from the urbane, knowing drag sophistication of another Australian icon, Dame Edna, but it somehow feels more true and heartfelt, too.
Back on the more conventional cabaret palette, the week has offered a pair of fine tribute shows to The Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen (in an excellent, well-researched show by Avigail Herman) and the late, great singer Nina Simone (by an equally compelling Lisa Schouw, who makes her own fine and sensitive claim on the material in between lovingly told biographical anecdotes). There’s also been the cool continental sophistication of French jazz band Paris Combo, a more earnest collection of poetic original songs from local jazz artists Katie Noonan and the Paul Grabowsky Trio, and a show of vampy solo pizzazz from another terrific local performer, Kaye Tuckerman.
But the week’s concluding highlight, and the festival’s most daring developmental triumph, was a concert staging of a brand-new Maltby and Shire musical, Take Flight, which literally got airborne after just four days of rehearsal. Despite the brief preparation, the strain didn’t show. Under Maltby’s own direction, this song cycle on those early pioneers of flight – from the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh to Amelia Earhart – was beautifully performed by a stunning local ensemble.
It may seem invidious to point out individuals in the circumstances, but is there nothing Eddie Perfect can’t do? Last week I raved about his own solo show, in which he performed his own dazzling original material; this week I’ve also seen him act as a brilliantly discreet piano accompanist to Kaye Tuckerman. Now he buried himself in the character of Wilbur Wright to prove that he’s equally adept as a fine character actor. And did I mention that for one number he also had to learn to play the mandolin? I feel that I have seen a star take flight, not just a musical start to find its wings.