Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid

The Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Hyde Park North, January 8

MeowMeow

Meow Meow in her Little Mermaid cabaret. Photo: Prudence Upton

This show is about happiness, says cabaret diva Meow Meow, perched on a rock singing Black’s Wonderful Life while fighting back sobs.

In fact, Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (which follows her Little Match Girl cabaret) is more about the fraught search for happiness and love.

Meow Meow is the alter ego of Melissa Madden Gray: a postmodern, Weimar-infused, “kamikaze” cabaret artist with bombshell looks, a whirlwind stage presence, sultry vocals and a saucy sense of humour.

As you’d expect, this is no straightforward telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark tale about the mermaid who endures agonising pain in her new feet in order to be with the Prince she saved from the sea, only for him to marry someone else.

Playing as part of the Sydney Festival, it’s no Disney version either but something idiosyncratically Meow Meow’s.

Many of her trademark tropes are there: the hilarious, throwaway one-liners, the need for adoration, the crowd surfing and the passive aggressive dealings with the audience. Here, however, she seems gentler than in the past. Just don’t get in her light.

Add a sex doll dressed like her, plastic body parts representing previous relationships who might make the ideal partner when combined, flippers, bubbles and a Prince from her subconscious (actor Chris Ryan in sparkly outfit with scallop shell codpiece) and you have some idea of the comic mayhem.

Ryan also makes a surprise entry in more blokey attire and gives a beautiful rendition of Schubert’s Am Meer (By the Sea).

Underpinning it all are piercing riffs on love, desire, obsession, sacrifice and the state of the world with references ranging from the frivolous to the highly sophisticated.

Accompanied by The Siren Effect Orchestra under musical director Jethro Woodward, the show includes some wonderful songs, most of them originals by the likes of Iain Grandage, Megan Washington, Kate Miller-Heidke and Amanda Palmer. What’s more, Meow Meow has a gorgeous smoky voice – except perhaps when singing in dolphin – and mines the emotional depth in the lyrics.

Unobtrusively directed by Michael Kantor, with set and costumes by Anna Cordingley and lighting by Paul Jackson, the 70-minute show is outrageously entertaining with provocative themes beneath the surface, all delivered in classic Meow Meow fashion.

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid plays until January 23. Bookings: www.sydneyfestival.org.au/meow or 1300 856 876

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 17

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Amanda Palmer

The Spiegeltent, Festival Village, Hyde Park, Sydney

January 9

Amanda Palmer at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Jamie Williams

Amanda Palmer at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Jamie Williams

I have to confess that I was an Amanda Palmer virgin – in the sense of never having seen her live – until now. I’ve read about her, of course, and I’ve heard her songs but never encountered her up close, in the flesh.

My 20-something plus-one, meanwhile, knew nothing about her beyond her letter supporting Miley Cyrus’s right to twerk. We were both blown away.

The post-punk cabaret star, who was one half of pioneering cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, has toured here regularly, most recently with her new band the Grand Theft Orchestra.This time it’s just her on keyboard and ukulele performing in the decadent timber and mirrored surrounds of The Spiegeltent – a venue that seems almost tailor made for her – for Sydney Festival.

We heard her before we saw her, as robust strumming on the ukulele from the back of the tent heralded her entrance. Singing “In My Mind” unplugged she wandered through the tent before hitting the stage.

In slinky, cream satin vintage gown with long black gloves, fishnets and those famous, arching eyebrows, Palmer has a charisma that quickly draws you into her orbit as she weaves an almost immediate, spell-binding rapport with her audience.

Her patter moves from the droll to the personal and pointed. Her gorgeous, versatile voice cajoles and seduces. She reduces you to mirth one minute and breaks your heart the next, seemingly effortlessly.

Her repertoire ranged from the comic “Vegemite (The Black Death)”, which she wrote for her author husband Neil Gaiman who unlike Palmer loves our yeasty spread, to an intense version of Ted Egan’s “The Drover’s Boy”, during which performer Sabrina D’Angelo emerged from a Drizabone and Akubra to heighten the drama of the song.

Other numbers included “Map of Tasmania”, Palmer’s joyously cheeky ode to the unclipped female bush, the Dresden Dolls’ perky “Coin-Operated Boy”, Bat for Lashes’ “Laura” sung as a beautiful duet with Brendan Maclean, also dressed in a slinky slip with a spiky blonde quiff, and a moving song about her tough last year.

She ended in upbeat fashion with “Ukulele Anthem”, her paen to the power of music and creativity even if – or especially if – it’s on a simple ukulele that anyone can learn to play.

It was a beautifully balanced song list from across her career that would have delighted fans (though there was no number from her latest album “Theatre is Evil”) as well as serving as a brilliant introduction to newbies.

After the first show Palmer tweeted: “oh my god that was surreal. so many people who didn’t know me at all. this festival is going to be actual WORK.” But work that will doubtless win her umpteen new Aussie fans.

During the show she confessed to being “obsessed” with Australia. Right back at you Miss Palmer! Come back soon.

Amanda Palmer plays in The Spiegeltent until January 19. Bookings: Sydney Festival 1300 856 876

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 12