Cabaret Festival Review: Meow Meow : Souvenir

Meow Meow is, at heart, a comedienne, a mistress of comedy in the tradition of Barry Humphries.

Presented by Adelaide Festival Centre 
Reviewed 17 June 2017

The fire curtain is down as we enter the theatre.  It has a charming painting of the theatre itself in 1913, when it was called The Tivoli. Suddenly, there’s a late 19th century baritone soundtrack giving robust voice to the glories of Tasmania… and a panicky woman shouting instructions to the sound desk that they’ve got the wrong track, and this is Adelaide, South Australia.   The fun begins.  Meow Meow (Canberra-born Melissa Madden Gray) enters through the audience, wearing a black halo of fright wig and trailing an improbable ragtag train on her utterly-camp silver costume. She greets individual audience members with shrieks of delight, and provides a shameless showing of her legs and associated northern regions.  (Aficionados always book aisle seats near the front for just such occasions as this.)

Once she gains the stage, she delivers a passionate spoken ode to the fire curtain, which then ascends to show a gloomy stage stripped bare of ornament. No back-cloth, no legs (except her phenomenal ones); the only things discernible in the gloom are an Exit sign and what seems like a wooden boat down-stage centre. Designer Andrea Lauer has confected a clever way in which to showcase a theatre’s story, whilst making the design elements mostly unobtrusive. Meow Meow’s catch-phrase for the show is “Do I have to do everything myself?”  Muttering this, she bustles to the back wall of the stage, snatches the Exit sign off the wall, and proceeds to try and work in its feeble light.

Meow Meow introduces the evening’s topic – the “half-remembered, mis-reported history” of old theatres, and of the spirits that still inhabit them. It’s an affectionate homage to theatres everywhere, especially our own Grand Dame, Her Majesty’s.  The format is that most unfashionable thing, a song cycle of nine original songs, mostly composed by Jherek Bischoff (also musical director of the performance) with some songs written by August Von Trapp (yes, the great-grandson of Maria and the Captain).  Her ebullient cabaret persona holds enough energy to make this explanation both vivid and entertaining.

As the lights come up on the stage, she introduces the Orchester der Kleiner Regiment – and we see a dozen or so musicians seated in a shallow semi-circle. Bischoff conducts from stage left with what looks like a cross between a guitar and a viol slung across his chest.  He often plays as well. The songs vary in intensity and genre. Meow Meow is a vocal adept; both spoken and sung voice are richly adequate to all tasks. Stylistically, she ranges from opera to pop, with Brecht-Weill, blues, and the 1901 hit song, “The honeysuckle and the bee” done as a brisk salsa.  Her voice is beautifully in command of all material.

She speaks about the history of Her Majesty’s Theatre, drops the holy name of Phyl Skinner – Adelaide vaudeville legend and National Treasure – a number of times  (telling us that she visited her last night), and in many ways tries to make her show location-specific and Adelaide-relevant.  It is, however, a cycle of nine songs which can be framed to fit old theatres anywhere. Meow Meow has already done this show last month in Brighton, (UK) at their Theatre Royal. Songs are about a juggler, travelling vaudevillians, children in orphanages being visited by opera singers, ill-fated arctic explorers (during this number, a huge white textured sail is slowly hoisted at the back of the stage), love affairs and stars. There is a group of eleven young children, dressed in 19th-century clothes; Meow Meow introduces them as her Lilliputian Opera.  They do a lovely a cappella job of the sentimental wartime hit, “Just before the battle, mother”, and provide gentle obbligato accompaniments.  They also add hilarity at the curtain call.

The compositional work is elegant and thoughtful, thanks to Bischoff and Von Trapp.  The musicians are excellent. Meow Meow herself is an exceptionally skilled and watchable performer.  However, the several elements of the performance fail to settle into an integrated whole because of the sheer disparity of their core strengths.  Meow Meow is, at heart, a comedienne, a mistress of comedy in the tradition of Barry Humphries.  When momentary glimpses of her comedienne persona shine through, those are what we love and remember best.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Rating out of 5:  4

Venue:  Her Majesty’s Theatre
Season:  17th – 18th June, 2017
Duration:  80 minutes
TicketsFull Price: $81:90 Concession: $61:90
Bookings:  BASS 131 246


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