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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But Wait…There’s More

The Entertainment Quarter, January 2

CircusOzEnsemble

The Circus Oz ensemble. Photo: Rob Blackburn

Circus Oz’s latest show But Wait….There’s More arrives in Sydney at the end of a two-year tour. It’s clearly had a few changes along the way but is in good shape.

There are plenty of strong, engaging personalities among the company but they work together as a tight ensemble. As well as performing in various acts, they all play instruments to bolster the two musicians in the band and pitch in to help with scene changes so that things keep rocking along.

Directed by Mike Finch – his final production as artistic director of the company, a role he’s held since 1997 – the show supposedly has an underpinning theme about “infobesity” and consumerism. There are various references ranging from a comic character staggering under a tower of boxed purchases to an acrobatic routine with the performers in barcode-like costumes. But overall you’d be hard pressed to recognise a consistent theme if you didn’t already know about it.

No matter. The show has that lovely raw honesty and irreverent sense of fun that characterises Circus Oz. It looks good too with impressive costuming by Laurel Frank and lighting by Paul Jackson.

Dale Woodbridge-Brown is very funny as the ringmaster introducing himself as a triple threat – gay, indigenous, adopted. He is quick with the one-liners, strikes some wonderfully tongue-in-cheek poses in his fetching red jacket, shorts and sock suspenders, and is an acrobat to boot in a hoop diving routine (with Sharon Gruenert and Nathan Kell) through a TV-like rectangle.

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Kyle Raftery and April Dawson in their unicycle adagio. Photo: Rob Blackburn

Real-life partners Kyle Raftery and April Dawson perform a beguiling balancing routine on a unicycle (to a beautiful piece of music for piano and banjo), Olivia Porter’s juggling routine with white balls has a refreshing edginess to it, Matt Wilson’s balancing act on children’s chairs has an added twist with the chairs perched precariously on a pepper grinder, plastic skull, glass bottle and statue of the Eiffel Tower, while the exuberant flying trapeze act mixes impressive feats with slapstick comedy.

So often, the clowns aren’t funny in circus shows. Here, Wilson (a circus veteran of 25 years) and Porter are a genuinely funny double act using plenty of old-style slapstick – she as a timid, put-upon character, and he as a strong, chipper chappie.

A routine featuring the live performance of the “Lion Song” with children from the audience going up on stage to be lions sits rather oddly. It’s obviously a reference to circuses from days past when animals were paraded but for me anyway it was one of a couple of flat spots.

Overall, however, But Wait…There’s More is one of the most entertaining Circus Oz shows I’ve seen for a while with a warmth and generosity of spirit that is very endearing.

But Wait….There’s More plays in the Big Top in The Showring, Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park until January 24. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

Oedipus Rex

Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs, August 26

Peter Carroll as Oedipus. Photo: Pia Johnson

Peter Carroll as Oedipus. Photo: Pia Johnson

It begins in darkness. A couple of minutes tick past in a silent void. Some have found this initial blackout (with more to follow) uncomfortable and agonisingly long but I have to admit it didn’t feel that unsettling or threatening in the audience I sat with.

Then in a watery pale half-light we glimpse a frail old man in grimy-looking underwear and blindfold breathing noisily through an oxygen mask. The darkness returns and a barrage of cacophonous sound throbs through the theatre.

As the light comes and goes, he clambers onto the chair and strikes a series of agonised poses reminiscent of classical sculpture.

When the lights finally come up fully, a young woman enters with towels, a basin of water and a laundry bag of clothes. Stripping the old man she washes him in a bored, matter-of-fact way but not without tenderness. Then they play games to while away the time, games that he cannot hope to win.

This is Oedipus (Peter Carroll), now aged, almost senile and in exile, looking back in anguish on the terrible tragedy of his life: fated to murder his father, marry his mother and sire children that are his half-siblings. He has already gouged out his eyes. He lives in the kind of darkness the production periodically thrusts us into. Now his daughter/sister Antigone (Andrea Demetriades) is with him as he faces death.

Director Adena Jacobs describes her hour-long production – which references Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus – as “a meditation on the myth of Oedipus Rex, and the notion of suffering itself. It is a poem. A code of symbols. A series of impressions that emerge from the darkness of the theatre. Tragedy cannot be represented. It can only be experienced through the senses,” she writes in the program notes.

It certainly helps to at least know the outline of Oedipus’s story, though there is a short section of text in which Carroll briefly articulates his tragedy, capturing through the poetry Oedipus’s once heroic status.

But for the most part, Jacobs uses loaded imagery. Are the games (which feel somewhat over-extended) a reference to human beings suffering as the playthings of the gods? Oedipus’s destiny was after all predicted before he was even born. The riddle of the sphinx was a kind of cruel game, as Antigone is at times here. Or is the game-playing merely a way of passing of the unendurably long days waiting for death?

One particularly striking image offers various possibilities around the theme of incest: perhaps a memory of the past or another twist in the present.

Max Lyandvert’s soundscape moves between rumbling electronic noise and glorious, lush early music that summons a sense of the epic, tragic grandeur of the myth – in complete contrast to the ugly, painful, squalid reality of what we see unfolding before us in this drab, carpeted room backed by a wall of timber frames and plastic sheeting (designed by Paul Jackson, who also did the lighting).

Somehow, though, as we ponder what each image might mean, we respond intellectually rather than viscerally. As with Jacobs’s recent production of Hedda (also for Belvoir) we are held at arm’s length emotionally.

Carroll gives a wonderful portrayal of a haunted man confused, possibly suffering dementia, consumed by suffering and the horror of what has been, yet still able to lash out in rage. The black contact lenses, which make dark holes of his eyes, lend a genuinely frightening touch to his haggard face.

Peter Carroll with Andrea Demetriades. Photo: Pia Johnson

Peter Carroll with Andrea Demetriades. Photo: Pia Johnson

Demetriades is also impressive as Antigone, by turns caring, cruel and exasperated: a down-to-earth foil to the dramatic intensity of Carroll’s tortured performance.

It’s strange though, at the end of a piece that explores such a horrifying tale, for it to have had such little impact emotionally. It should be harrowing and full of pain. Instead I watched with cool detachment, admiring, pondering, wondering, yet not really emotionally involved.

Oedipus Rex plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs until September 14.