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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Club Swizzle

The Studio, Sydney Opera House, January 21

Valerie Murzak in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

Valerie Murzak in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

As you enter the Sydney Opera House Studio for Club Swizzle, the place is abuzz. People are sitting drinking at a large central, rather elegant bar (which serves pretty expensive drinks though there’s a cheaper bar at the back of the room), friendly waiters and ushers are whizzing around, and entertainer Murray Hill is moving through the crowd chatting.

Then in a snappy piece of choreography the bar is quickly transformed into a performance space, getting the show off to a terrific start.

The concept (by Brett Haylock) of a cabaret-vaudeville show set in a late-night bar is fabulous, as is the production’s set-up. The show itself feels a little undercooked but it’s early days and is bound to develop.

Club Swizzle has more of an old-fashioned vaudeville vibe than its cheekier predecessors La Clique and La Soirée.

Hill, a New York drag king, acts as the MC. His tagline is “the man who puts the ‘king’ back in f#*king funny”. I didn’t actually find him particularly funny but he’s a warm presence with a nice, easy rapport with the audience.

The line-up also includes Movin’ Melvin Brown, an old-school vaudevillian from America who croons and tap dances, Russian circus artist Valerie Murzak who does sexy contortion and balancing on a giant mirror ball and aerial silks, Finnish dancer Anna de Carvalho who performs on a swinging aerial pole, and Australian ‘kamikaze’ diva Meow Meow who sings three numbers. (Ali McGregor replaces Meow Meow in February).

The backbone of the show though are The Swizzle Boys, four acrobats (Tom Flanagan, Joren Dawson, Daniel Catlow and Ben Lewis) who do the lion’s share of the performing.

Dressed as waiters, they certainly work hard for their money, performing numerous acts (balancing, Chinese pole, ropes, teeterboard, hoop diving) with oodles of exuberant enthusiasm, often with drinks in hand. The house band, Mikey and the Nightcaps, are also hot and add to the pumping vibe.

The Swizzle Boys prepare to launch off in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

The Swizzle Boys prepare to launch off in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

Club Swizzle could do with a bit more variety – entertaining though they are, The Swizzle Boys are rather too ubiquitous – and a little more originality among some of the acts. There have been so many shows of this ilk (La Clique, La Soirée, Empire, Limbo to name just a few) in recent years that there’s little here we haven’t seen before.

I also missed the whacky, screamingly funny humour of acts like Captain Frodo squeezing himself through a tennis racquet or oddball comedy-magician Carl-Einar Hackner from La Clique/La Soirée.

It was an audience participation routine when two people are pulled from the crowd to do a pole dance-off that brought the house down on opening night, with Sunrise producer Michael Pell and The Voice contestant Lionel Cole hilariously giving it their all.

As Haylock has noted in interviews, a late-night bar is the natural, anarchic habitat for a various colourful characters. As it stands, a few more eccentric personalities and a bit more of a sense of chaos would give Club Swizzle more zing. But it’s still a lot of fun and got a huge response from the audience.

Club Swizzle plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 15

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 25