Cabaret Festival Review: The Swell Mob

Eighteenth century taproom etiquette isn’t hard to pick up. you get the idea in no time.


Presented by Flabbergast Theatre
Reviewed 8 June, 2019

 ‘And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’ said philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book, ‘Leviathan’. Fast forward a hundred years from Hobbes and Flabbergast Theatre’s creation of a typical eighteenth century taproom echoes Hobbes’ gloomy prophecy.

Eighteenth century taproom etiquette isn’t hard to pick up. you get the idea in no time. We enter a confined, variably lit space with hessian-draped ceilings, curtained-off areas, a tiny rudimentary stage, a stocked bar from which 21st century drinks can be bought, many dark areas, a few tables and chairs, and a piano. The first person I see is a gamine in eighteenth century rags sitting spread-legged on top of a keg. I was then yelled at in a very friendly way by a tall, gangly woman with evident mental difficulties and a long white dress. Play money is given to all, for the purpose of gambling. The immersive and interactive qualities of this production are its great strength but are also the knife-edge upon which each of its performances stands or falls. There were about ten performers engaged in the evening’s activities all around the room. Though action is designed to appear haphazard and improvised, it is possible to see a secure theatrical structure underpinning all the apparent noise and mayhem. It will work best when audience members walk up to individual characters and interact directly with them.  Actors attempt to elicit this kind of response from the audience throughout the show, but it seems that we antipodeans are a coy race at heart.

I gather that the ranks of The Swell Mob were swollen by the addition of at least two local actors. Since there is no printed programme listing actors’ names, it makes it tricky to applaud specific performers, especially in such a non-linear interactive show. Many of the performers show formidable physical theatre skills allied with cleverly underplayed acting expertise. Standouts were the wordlessly solemn, silent, severely suited woman in a top hat; her presence as an actor is astounding. In addition, the actor playing Penny a deranged woman charged with managing the money, balances just the right amount of intermittent lucidity and manic distress to provoke pathos.

A red-coated soldier plays a manual-skill game with a customer at a table in the corner.  Next to him, a tophatted, bearded and luxuriantly moustachioed gent spruiks gambling on Faro, a card game. Patrons join in. Madame Vestry is introduced as a singer from Paris.  Blessed with an alarming décolletage, she stands on the tiny stage and sings (in a very fine mezzo voice) Voi che sapete (Marriage of Figaro), L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Carmen), and does a creditable solo job of Rossini’s  Duetto buffo di due gatti. This was while the card games continued as well as the spruiking, argument, chat and constant flow of audience members around the room. Fights break out between characters in the room. A tall man glides with dreamlike slowness through the crowd. He holds a grotesque homunculus of a puppet in his hands, and speaks to people through this. It is innately disturbing. We sing along with a lusty taproom ballad, ‘When Jones’ ale was new’.  Some folk dance. Later in the proceedings, there is a bare-knuckle (and shirtless) fight in a separate part of the room, within a five-sided raw timber ring. The audience yells, barracking for the fighter they have bet on. Returning to the main space, the opera singer plays Für Elise on the piano while the red-coated soldier drives long nails up his nostrils with a small hammer. I’m still thinking this one through.

So, what was it really like?  Well, you had to be there.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Rating out of 5:  4 stars.   

Venue:  Adelaide Festival Centre – ArtSpace
Season:  8th – 22nd June, 2019
Duration:  1 hour, 15 minutes
Tickets:  $49.90

cabaret, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Flabbergast Theatre, Cabaret Festival, ArtSpace

Hot News