Fresh from a debut season during Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival, Drew Downing’s quasi one-man-show (he has an eminently capable backing trio consisting of double bass, guitar and drums), was invited for a return season as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival at the Kew Court House.
Directed by Rob Gaetano, it features Downing as the character Rebel, in a show that he conceived while criss-crossing the American heartland on Route 66. Clearly, that trip was an iconic moment in Downing’s life, as the materials he has written as a consequence portray a soul-searching and moving journey for the hero of the piece.
Simply staged, this is a character-driven story and there is simply nowhere for Downing to hide, but he delivers a strong, poignant and focused performance of a very sympathetic character. Gaetano’s deft directorial hand is obvious in the key transitional moments and Downing has no problem with achieving them in a thoroughly believable fashion.
Rebel is an endearing cowboy from small town farmhand USA, with a kid sister who idolises him and an Uncle who likes to “plant potatoes” – a euphemism for his gay lifestyle and one that is entirely suitable given the time setting of the piece, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s a life that Rebel soon realises is his path in the world.
Armed with his musical ability and a bucket load of dimpled country boy charm, he heads off on his journey to find himself and become a star, and eventually ends up in the big smoke of Los Angeles. His time in L.A. is littered with dalliances, some of which are affairs, or very close encounters, with the big names of Hollywood back in its heyday.
Downing’s portrayal of the character, with an almost impeccable down-home accent, and an obvious affinity with his creation, is superb, both vocally and textually. The story moves at a cracking pace and, transitions from the joyful to the sadder moments are handled with aplomb – a credit to Downing’s abilities as an actor.
Some of the storytelling moved me to tears, but there are also numerous endearing and funny moments throughout. Downing’s song and lyric writing serves the character and the story well, with a very definite handle on the styles that influenced mainstream American music in the 1950s and 1960s.
The beautiful I’m Not Coming Home, a letter-writing sequence, is particularly noteworthy, along with His Name Was Rock & Roll. For a 45 minute show, Rebel covers a lot of ground and Downing’s mastery of his character moves the show along without it feeling rushed or contrived. You genuinely have a chance to develop a relationship with the character.
Throughout, listening to the music and lyrics, and being thoroughly captivated by the storytelling, I couldn’t help but see the piece expanded beyond its current Cabaret setting and 45 minute duration. I think (or hope) there’s more of the Rebel story to tell in the future.
Drew Downing’s REBEL
Kew Court House, 188 High Street, Kew
Performance: Thursday 3 July 2014 – 7.00pm
Season: 2 – 5 July 2014
For more information, visit: www.drewdowningrebel.com for details.
Image: Drew Downing in REBEL
Review: PJ Buchanan