Life may be a cabaret, old chum (to quote the immortal Fred Ebb lyric that has come to encapsulate the form), but is there still life in cabaret? There have been constant attempts to regenerate a floundering form in London, but the past decade or so has seen places like the Café Royal’s Green Room, the Connaught Rooms, the Oxo Tower’s Riverwalk restaurant briefly but gloriously last summer on the South Bank, the Selina Jones jazz club in Shepherd’s Bush, and the Divas at the Donmar season (that I was partly responsible for initiating) all come and go, some sooner than later.

Pizza on the Park at Hyde Park Corner still thankfully clings on, but apart from the occasional noble efforts of independent producer Barry Mishon there, where are the headliners of old – performers like Ann Hampton Callaway, Andrea Marcovicci, Amanda McBroom and Maureen McGovern, who galvanised the place with sensational songs, sensationally sung? None of them have been seen in London for years. Nowadays, London’s decimated cabaret scene revolves mainly around the literally twilight world of Sunday afternoon sessions at Highgate’s Lauderdale House and late night seasons at Jermyn Street Theatre (currently to 11 July 2004) produced by the irrepressible Tim McArthur and Katherine Ives of Trilby Productions, but it’s resolutely small-scale.

Even in New York, supposedly home to contemporary cabaret, things are little brighter, with a few over-priced, prestige hotel rooms – like at the hallowed Algonquin, Carlyle (home of the Café Carlyle, where Maria Friedman played a season in April) and Regency (where Michael Feinstein’s club, named after himself, is based) – catering to a moneyed elite with headline acts, and a few smaller rooms elsewhere, like W46th Street’s Don’t Tell Mamas and Danny’s Skylite Room, offering more affordable experiences but where the quality may be far more variable.

Re-energising a flailing form

Over 10,000 miles away – and over 28 hours’ travelling time – I have just seen the future of cabaret, and it’s good. It’s a long way to go to find this out, but it’s more than worth the trip. Here, in the south Australian city of Adelaide, an annual cabaret festival is now in its fourth flourishing year and demonstrating how, where there’s a serious will, there’s also an inspiring way to re-energise and galvanise a flailing form. Adelaide proves that, if you create the right conditions, cabaret will flourish, with both artists and audiences discovering that, done well, it provides the best possible forum for intimate musical communication between them.

While there was finally an attempt to launch a cabaret convention in London earlier this year - with a one-night event at Greenwich Theatre that, given its unfortunate clash with the Laurence Olivier Awards ceremony, I wasn’t present able to attend - the Adelaide Cabaret Festival by contrast features some 175 performances of 65 shows, embracing around 400 singers and musicians, across some 14 performance nights, with up to 16 separate events a day. Last year, over 41,000 visitors attended.

And instead of being buried in a little theatre in south-east London, this festival also completely takes over a major arts complex, the Adelaide Festival Centre (around which the biannual Adelaide Festival is focused), and has it erupt with the kind of tightly organised yet spontaneous-feeling celebration that puts the festive into festival. There’s an intangible atmosphere you can’t exactly create (let alone describe), but it’s here: a sense of artistic display and creation in which audiences and performers alike are being intensely challenged and invigorated by new discoveries about themselves and each other.

Singular artistic vision

It’s seems amazing to me that the same building that will be hosting Australia’s first indigenously produced Ring Cycle in November should also be behind this. But beyond the corporate organisational might and money that the Adelaide Festival Centre brings to it, it’s propelled by the singular artistic and managerial vision of the Festival Centre’s extraordinary Director of Programming and Marketing, Julia Holt. She launched this festival when she joined the Centre four years ago, fresh from a stint in the UK where, amongst other things, she worked at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms, and she’s brought the same dynamic sense of mutable spaces to this formal 1970s arts building.

Beneath the jagged geometric domes of two adjoining complexes, Holt has carved out and created a range of cabaret spaces, from an intimate piano bar and jazz club in a theatre foyer to a vast room in a Banquet Hall, and a unique space, created on the stage of the Festival Theatre itself, that the audience enter through the auditorium and then find themselves ushered to the other side of the curtain of. In every space, too, there’s the convivial informality of tableside seating, with drinks and food available in all but the theatre setting of the Dunstan Playhouse, to foster an authentic cabaret atmosphere.

I have been here for five days so far, and have already seen 14 variously terrific shows. It’s like the Edinburgh Fringe, only better for being entirely curated and therefore full of hits, rather than the kind of inevitable misses that are an occupational hazard of festival-going. More importantly, Adelaide isn’t merely a showcase for shows picked up elsewhere; it’s also a nurturing environment that makes this as much a serious creative furnace as a presentational arena.

International appearances

While local work is, of course, an important and vigorous strand, there are a host of international appearances as well, from Americans like veteran New York cabaret singer Steve Ross and jazz and blues songbird Eden Atwood, to Britain’s satirical musical duo Kit and the Widow (pictured - who recorded a couple of episodes, to be aired on 14 and 21 August, of their BBC Radio 3 series here). The festival also fosters artistic collaborations, and possibly this year’s most significant imports are the American musical songwriting team of Richard Maltby Jr and David Shire. They may just be the perfect fit for a cabaret festival, since their two best scores are for the intimate cabaret musicals, Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer than Ever, both of them originally seen off-Broadway.

The latter show – which I’ve followed ever since it was first seen cabaret-style, and then under the title Next Time Now, at Eighty-Eights, a tiny and now gone but much-lamented New York room – was spectacularly staged here for one night only in its biggest incarnation yet: a concert presentation featuring a full orchestra (instead of the piano and bass accompaniment it originally had) and six local performers instead of the four it was first conceived for. This ravishing, mature song cycle – of relationships and love, regret and roads not taken – enveloped the audience in a warm embrace, in which every song tells a story and conjures an entire emotional landscape, and was feelingly put across by a spirited and committed company that included two Aussie performers we’ve seen in London, Anne Wood and Simon Burke (best known locally for a 15-year stint as a Play School presenter on Australian television). Wood, who has just finished two-and-a-half years in the lead role of Donna in the Oz production of Mamma Mia!, is a performer who once understudied Maria Friedman (in a West End Cole Porter revue, A Swell Party) and came back a star, and it was wonderful to see her shining still with refreshing maturity here. But I was also thrillingly taken by a performer new to me, Kaye Tuckerman, who brought humour and zing to two of the show’s best songs, “Miss Byrd” and “Back on Base”.

Maltby and Shire also held a wonderfully informal and touching musical cabaret afternoon of their own, providing a career retrospective of their 45-year collaboration that began when they were students together at Yale, and in addition to their cabaret musicals, has also seen them work together on the less successful Broadway musicals Baby and Big, as well as individually work on shows like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Miss Saigon (oddly unmentioned) in the case of Maltby, and on an Oscar-winning theme song to Norma Rae for Shire. Adelaide has also secured a World first: in the second week, it will stage the premiere of a workshop of this duo’s latest collaboration, Take Flight, and here’s hoping that it does.

Post-Jamie Cullum era

As it is, other new work has already taken flight here. A brand-new girl group made up of four Adelaide-originated performers, Women with Standards, provided an extremely classy and polished revue of standards old and new, that set new standards for this kind of thing in the post-Jamie Cullum era. To hear the feisty and fabulously spiky-haired Libby O’Donovan, for example, attack that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” was to experience it at a speed and tempo never before imagined. The troupe also includes Naomi Eyers (one of the founding members of another Aussie singing sensation, The Fabulous Singlettes that took the West End by storm in the late 2980s and whose members also included Jerry Springer’s Alison Jiear), Melissa McCaig and Lee McAllistair. We’ll be hearing more of them together and individually in the future.

Another major local discovery is a performer who rejoices in the name of Eddie Perfect, and is just that: a genuinely subversive cabaret terrorist who sings up a storm (and, seen in a different guise elsewhere, plays a mean piano, too), Perfect looks like a mild, well-scrubbed member of a boy band but has the sensibility and outrageous comedy of something far darker and more dangerous. He’s like an unholy alliance of Manilow and Marilyn Manson. “This is not the kind of cabaret you take home to meet your mother,” he warns – rather, “It gets drunk, steals your ciggies and then tries to fuck your sister…. And succeeds.”

Actually, Perfect succeeds in a lot more than that: he genuinely detonates social as well as cabaret taboos. Confessing his passion for an employee at his local juice bar, he admits: “I want to chop her up/ and juice her….”, but realises, somewhat belatedly, “she’s not a beverage/, she’s a chick.” There’s an amazing song, poignant as well as political, in which he tries to claim that some of his best friends are aboriginal, but eventually realises that none of them are. He also sings of weapons of mass destruction, and of Australian PM John Howard: “He’ll lie in your ear, while he’s fucking your arse…. That’s why I’m one of John Howard’s bitches.” Perfect is the most original musical cabaret persona I’ve seen since another Aussie classic, Bob Downe.

Moody, broody repertoire

Another sensation of the festival so far has been Mise en Scene, a Belgian outfit seen at Edinburgh last year (and returning there this year, to Assembly at St George’s West, from 12 to 30 August), with a stupendous show entitled Songs of Jacques Brel. It’s difficult not to invest the moody, broody repertoire of the late, great Belgian troubadour with drama – Peter Straker has also recently done so at the King’s Head in London – but, as led here by the formidably sensuous, seductive singer Micheline van Hautem, these songs have a vibrancy and passion that take the roof off. There’s also an exquisite musicality to the musical support, especially of Frederik Caelen’s urgent, enticing piano and accordion, as well as Frank de Kleer’s guitar and Bob Wisselink’s double bass. Don’t miss it in Edinburgh. Again, in the spirit of artistic invention that distinguishes this festival, Mise en Scene also took the opportunity to premiere a brand new show here, Madame, that celebrates famous divas from Sarah Vaughan and Julie London to Piaf and Dietrich.

Another Edinburgh hit from last year reappearing in Adelaide is Songs to Illuminate the Dark by the local troupe Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, a broody European-influenced quartet who sound a bit like the Tiger Lillies but without the falsetto shriek. With their insinuatingly original melodies and bravura performances, this is a bracing ride. Ditto the surprising range and comic attack of the Ennio Morricone Experience, in which five seriously accomplished musicians replay the soundtracks to some of the spaghetti westerns Morricone scored, creating an aural landscape out of instruments as diffuse as a cereal box or a plastic bag.

Parallel universe

In the best kind of festivals, time seems to be suspended – and not just because, crossing the dateline here, it literally is – and you feel that you’re in a parallel universe. I felt that sense of suspended animation while crowding into a large room at 11 in the morning to hear a veteran local performer, Janet Seidel, celebrate the career of the legendary American cabaret singer Blossom Dearie. Now nearly 80, Dearie’s still singing, as sweetly and lightly as a sparrow, twice weekly in a tiny New York room on W46th Street, and I’m sure she would be simply astonished to find a much larger and more appreciative audience for a celebration of her work over here than she even gets in person at home. Seidel actually heard Blossom sing for the first time in Adelaide in the 1970s, remembering that she brought her handbag on stage with her and looked like “a cute librarian”. This delicate, beautiful tribute show perfectly captures her essence; and though Dearie may be irreplaceable, it proves she’s at least not inimitable.

There are more predictable impersonations on offer in The Rat Pack’s Back, in which a trio of Aussie musical stars bring back to life Sinatra (Dale Burridge), Dean Martin (Peter Cousens) and Sammy Davis Jr (though David Malek’s contribution as the latter must be attributed to non-traditional casting!). It passes pleasantly enough – how it could it fail with some of the songs you hear here? – but it’s based on a couple of lazy assumptions: that the songs are so popular in themselves that the show needs little context or direction, beyond a few good-natured audience interactions; and that the men, too, are so well known that they need little development.

Reinventing for the future

Cabaret, of course, depends on not just replaying the hits of the past but reinventing it for the future, and Adelaide elsewhere exemplifies this. There’s even a cabaret programme for kids, its future audience; an artist-in-residence, Emma Hack, who has been creating live body art on cabaret performers; and spontaneous musical collisions that take place in the nightly late hours jazz club, as well as the smart nearby hotel bar where the performers stay. Cabaret also needs to be written about, not just sung, and as well as the excellent coverage in the daily Adelaide paper, The Advertiser, there’s even a foreign press corps (me!). Another testament to the festival’s success: it has already spawned a fringe festival at the nearby Weimar Room on Hindley Street! (My own brief encounter with it - of two-and-a-half strenuously awful shows, plus a pretend-blind poet that wandered around the room – was, I hope, just a bad night).

I’ve heard it said that Australia has an inferiority complex when it comes to cultural things in relation to Europe and America, but on the strength of what I’ve already seen here, it should have a superiority one. This festival far and away exceeds anything I have ever seen in London or New York: I already can’t wait for next year. It’s the greatest cabaret event on earth. And I’ve even met a koala and several kangaroos, too (a few miles outside Adelaide, I hasten to add, not at the festival itself)!!

NOTE: This feature will be updated with a report on the second week’s festivities next Monday, 28 June 2004. The Adelaide Cabaret Festival runs until 26 June 2004. For more details, visit the festival website.