Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2015: Under the Covers

MCF15_Under the Covers_photo by Kurt SneddonAt the start of Under The Covers, the corseted Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen informed us that the show would “Pull back the sheets on our crapulent bed to show you our sparkly wet spots”. Indeed, these Helpmann and Green Room Award winners would present a night of musical views of longing and desire that was confronting, sometimes quite personal, and splattered with shining patches.

The show’s listing on the web programme advised “Warning: Strong language and adult concepts”, and the show’s description is littered with terms like “debauchery” and “musical terrorism”. Freed from being on their best behaviour for the opening gala, this was all appropriate. Dark and Breen aren’t afraid to provoke their audience with gross-outs and subjects not generally included in a cabaret show.

These included a darkly humorous morality opera on the consequences of fetishes and deviant behaviour, as seen through the demise of two characters known – not so opaquely – only as “Lisa” and “Teddy”. What we weren’t warned about was a departure into the purely dark, as in a song about child abduction, which the Bedfellows admitted put a lot of the audience offside at a Sydney show.

For all of their efforts to repulse, Strange Bedfellows also know how to charm an audience, mixing the heavier topics with comedy and a range of musical styles. A concert-like Divinyls medley of Boys in town and Pleasure and Pain gave Dark a chance to show her vocal power. The duo’s rendition of a tale of the sugar-mummy and her duplicitous Kept Boy who isn’t as good an actor as he thinks, showed us the ability of the performers to play wicked characters.

From his piano, accompanist and musical director Daryl Wallis confidently took the mood from swaggering rock gig to Viennese salon. The music was of a consistently high standard, Dark showing her ability to go from rock chic to operatic diva, the expressive-faced Breen showing himself to be a chameleon even within one song as his voice replaced that of the main character, as seen in his pensive solo piece  The Other Woman, recalling Nina Simone.

 And as entertaining as it was (that is, when I wasn’t uncomfortable) overall I did feel that Under The Covers doesn’t have so much that’s actually cabaret. However, there was the odd occasion when Dark and Breen did step out from behind their characters to tell their own tragi-comedic stories. Breen’s rewriting of Leiber and Stoller’s Is That All There Is gave us disappointments from his adolescence. Dark gave a monologue on only being interested in children late as a “geriatric mother”, and sang of her misfortunes with IVF. This personal dimension provided some of the show’s biggest highlights.

As suits cabaret, there was an attempt to be topical. As Senator Brandis has recently sought to be more directly involved in the allocation of arts funding, there’s angst over being highbrow enough to get support. That’s why we were given a German language (so Cabaret!) offering from great Serbian composer Slobberdown Mycockubitch Verdorbene Liebe, which coincidentally sounds like early 80’s pop. Dark’s mastery of German imperative shows in an intense performance that might just make them better able to compete for dollars with the next remounting of the Ring Cycle.

After an hour of being turned on and off by the Strange Bedfellows, I wonder if at times they were a little too enamoured with some of their stunts at the expense of Under The Covers as a whole. Still, plenty will enjoy the thrill of the ride. While I have Verdorbene Liebe for the Strange Bedfellows, this highly entertaining show made them a terrific addition to the festival.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2015: Under the Covers
The Loft – Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Saturday 20 June 2015 – 10.15pm
Season: 19 – 20 June 2015

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Image: Kanen Breen and Jacqui Dark and – photo by Kurt Sneddon

Review: Jason Whyte