The fifth annual Adelaide Cabaret Festival has just concluded, and after spending a second week at this phenomenal festival (with a brief break only to visit Kangaroo Island, where an entirely different sort of cabaret is played out between wild animals), I am even more in awe of what is being achieved here.

Festivals are, of course, always a somewhat “artificial” construction – creating an energy around an art form, both thanks to the density of performances available to watch and, hopefully, their intensity – that is difficult to achieve outside of an environment like this. But if the critical mass of what is being shown here is any indicator, there’s an awful lot of cabaret out there, and what is sometimes regarded as a ‘dying art’ still has a lot of life left in it.

Oral storytelling

As long as there are human beings, and as long as they have stories to tell (or sing about), cabaret can only flourish. The oral storytelling tradition is, of course, at the root of all theatrical performance; but cabaret offers an unparalleled opportunity to return to that essence, without the distraction of huge sets, costumes or effects that bedevil so much of contemporary theatrical performance.

Sure, the thinking goes, if you want to compete with the bigger thrills of cinema, theatre has to offer a competing sense of spectacle; but sometimes there’s nothing more spectacular than a human being interacting one-on-one with an audience.

Cabaret, in short, restores the human being to the centre of the picture again, not merely one component of it. And the great thing about a festival is that the 4th wall doesn’t only come down in performances, but between them, too. There’s a tremendous amount of interaction not only between the participants themselves, but also between the participants and their audiences, whether it be in the simple post-show CD signings, or boozy sessions in the late-night bar, or more structured interactions like the “In Conversation…” series that has been implemented this year in which a cabaret participant is interviewed daily (a bit like a National Theatre platform performance) by the festival’s director, Julia Holt.

Signpost for the future

I should declare an interest, or rather a participation, myself here: on Tuesday I was the interviewee myself! And as I spoke to the (small) assembled throng, I realised not just how lucky they were to have this festival in their midst, but also something for myself- I realised how, far from locked into a cabaret past, this festival is often a signpost for the future.

Yes, there’s still room for the celebrations of the “great American songbook” cabaret performances that much of New York cabaret is still locked into; but the very best things I’ve seen this trip have been programmes that have mostly featured new work. I’ve already sung the praises of last week’s contribution by young composer Matthew Robinson; and this week’s thrills have been an extremely intimate and personal journey through the repertoire of another composer, Andrew Lippa from New York, in which he offered songs from musicals both seen and as yet unproduced; and even, in one case, his audition song for a stage version of Shrek (he didn’t get the job, so this was the only outing of it); and also a quirkily original 29-year-old Aussie performer of his own darkly hilarious songs, Tim Minchin. He may lack the political incisiveness of Eddie Perfect, but he’s just as unique.

But just as I’ve been delighted to discover new material, I’ve also encountered a raft of performers new to me. Christine Anu (pictured) is an indigenous Australian performer, born to Torres Strait Islander parents (where she also partly grew up), who has trained in dance and musical theatre and was seen as Mimi in the original Oz production of Rent. While her repertoire alighted briefly on her musical theatre past, there was also a thrillingly unfamiliar repertoire of authentic indigenous music, too. Camille O’Sullivan is a firebrand Irish performer who brought a rich lustre to the cabaret template (and no doubt inflamed the lust of some of the more red-blooded amongst the audience), with a repertoire that stretched from rock to yet more Brel (also done by Anu, and of course also represented by cabaret festival returnee, Micheline Van Hautem, with her all-Brel programme). And Mabel Dawn Davis is the striking drag persona of New York-based performer Deian McBryde, who gently illuminates a fictitious life story through classic songs.

Hello again & goodbye

The fest was also the chance to see Van Hautem in a new programme, Madame, that was briefly workshopped here last year; and also to send off all-girl singing group pastiche merchants The Fabulous Singlettes after twenty years on the scene, during which time they performed regularly in London’s West End. Van Hautem remains a one-of-a-kind performer – at once intense and intimate – and she’s gloriously supported by the extraordinary musicianship of her accompanist Frederik Caelen on piano and piano accordion. The latter is an instrument that he virtually seduces, turning it into the most potent and poetic of the festival. Van Hautem is also an instinctive seducer; but this hazily (and sometimes lazily) put together tribute to divadom has a sense of indulgence about it, too. It’s good to see her wishing to stretch her repertoire muscles by going beyond the confines of her other Brel programme, but she constantly retreats back to it for safety here.

As for the Singlettes, they’ve barely changed the template since they were first formed nearly twenty years ago; even their repartee remains largely the same. The line-up has changed over the years – Alison Jiear (now resident in London) has been long replaced by Melissa Langton, who is virtually a Jiear clone, both physically and as a comedienne – but the shtick is unchanged. It’s probably time to retire this act, even though it clearly gives considerable pleasure, because there’s something slightly undignified now about women well into their 40s still peddling this particular brand of juvenilia, however appealing and however musically accomplished.

The festival closed, however, on an even more invigorating note: Andrew Lippa – who has been the stand-out star of the fortnight – offered a concert performance of his first New York produced musical, John and Jen, that was equal parts cabaret, chamber musical and song cycle, with two stunning local performers, David Harris and Kaye Tuckerman, in the title roles. I only caught a rough draft of the presentation at the final rehearsals the day before – without the benefit of an orchestra – but it was both a thrill and a privilege to watch actors in the art of creation. It’s one of the amazing creative achievements of this festival that work of this calibre can be put together with less than a week’s rehearsal. But then a festival like this ups everyone’s game; there’s a spirit of serious fun and discovery that makes it worth doing for everyone.

If you haven’t yet read Mark Shenton’s report on the first week of this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival, you can access that feature by clicking here.