Review: Sydney Cabaret Festival

5*

“What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play!
Life is a cabaret old chum,
Come to the cabaret!”

And now, thanks to Australian musical theatre legend Trevor Ashley, Sydney audiences can brave the winter cold to do just that! Ashley is the Artistic Director of the very first Sydney Cabaret Festival, and he and his team have put together an eclectic 10-day programme bringing together some of the very best Australian and International cabaret acts. The LGBTQ Arts Review was thrilled to be invited along to report on some of the festival’s highlights.

First up, Frisky and Mannish: PopLab. Remember The Corrs? Ever wondered what it would sound like if Ariana Grande covered one of their songs? Or if Rick Astley reinvented himself as a hip-hop artist? Or if it’s possible to sing the whole of Les Miserables over the ‘tropical house’ xylophone riff of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’?

Well worry not, because self-declared ‘Pop PhDs’ Frisky and Mannish are here, to put your curious minds at rest. Answers to the above questions incidentally are a) of course you do, b) amazing, c) also amazing, and d) a resounding YES IT IS! Who knew?!

Frisky (Laura Corcoran) is a vivacious cabaret diva with an astounding voice, switching effortlessly from opera to rap via yodelling. Mannish (Matthew Floyd Jones) is her hilarious partner-in-crime, most frequently found at the keyboard, but occasionally allowed out to play. In this, their latest show which celebrates 10 years together, they storm their way through pop mash-ups, witty rewrites and ingenious re-imaginings of songs you thought you knew, under the pretence of being scientists, discovering cures and creating vaccines for some of the problems plaguing pop music. They cover a pretty comprehensive range – from Cliff Richard to Little Mix – even a bit of East 17! There’s original material too, most notably ‘The LGBTQI Song”, a helpful guide for those of us not 100% au fait with what every letter stands for in the ever-growing acronym.

The show moves at a rollicking pace, and I have to admit, as a huge pop fan, I sat there with a huge smile on my face throughout. With stunning vocals, classic tunes and laugh-out-loud gags, Frisky and Mannish have clearly discovered the formula for success.

Next up, Cheeky Cabaret, the latest show from Brett Haylock (one of the creators of La Clique, La Soiree, and Club Swizzle) created for the launch of Brunswick Picture House, and now forming the nightly centrepiece to the Sydney Cabaret Festival. If you’ve been to any of those previous shows, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. A circus/variety/cabaret night with (as its name suggests) more than a little bit of cheeky humour thrown in for good measure.

Our host is the deliciously deviant Reuben Kaye, who opens the show with his raunchy take on Geri Halliwell’s iconic ‘Look At Me.’ As he struts his way through the audience, spitting out take-downs and come-ons at a titillating pace, Kaye towers over the audience with legs for days and death-defying heels. But more about him later… There’s more comedy from Helen Cassidy who takes balloon modelling to another level, and burlesque star Lily Martinez gives us two witty strip-teases, including her sister Ursula’s infamous ‘Hanky Panky’ act in which red handkerchiefs keep appearing from the most unlikely of places. Use your imagination….!

Circus is well represented by leather-clad Mario Queen of the Circus who gives us jokes, juggling, unicycling, all soundtracked by some classic Queen tunes. We’re also introduced to the hilarious ‘Hula Queen’ Eloise Green who gives us two absolutely genius hula-hoop acts. On the flip side, a couple of sexy-but-serious aerial acts, as impressive as they are, feel somewhat incongruous given the ‘cheeky’ tone well and truly set by the other performers.

Speaking of cheeky, Natalie Joy Johnson’s one-woman cabaret show Relentless, jam-packed with filthy stories and power ballads, is an absolute corker. Natalie is a seasoned Broadway performer, most recently appearing in Kinky Boots, but perhaps most well-known to musical theatre geeks (myself unashamedly included) as the original Enid Hoopes in Legally Blonde The Musical.

There is no question that Natalie’s voice is absolutely stunning, and her renditions of classics by Joni Mitchell, Cyndi Lauper and Celine Dion among others are a real treat. But what really drives this show is Natalie’s wicked humour, and effortless rapport with the audience. Knocking back the champagne, she regales us with stories about her sex-life, reimagining Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u next’ as a commentary on her own disastrous Tinder experiences, and P!nk’s ‘Raise Your Glass’ as a sexy, sultry jazz standard.

But perhaps the highlight of the night is her self-penned gay disco anthem ‘Get Into It…Queen’ in which she orders us to ‘take that frown and turn it upside down…and stuff it with a dick.’ Catchy, empowering, and more than a little but naughty, this song sums Natalie up perfectly, and we leave the show not only wanting her to be our new best friend and drinking buddy, but feeling that she already is.

Also on a mission to make friends – and maybe more – is international cabaret legend Reuben Kaye, who – seemingly not satisfied with hosting Cheeky Cabaret – also performs his self-titled solo show at the festival. With his Sally Bowles eyelashes, glittery red lips and a series of gorgeously dazzling – and increasingly outlandish – costumes, Kaye looks like the physical embodiment of cabaret. But he’s more than just a pretty face. His vocals are nothing short of virtuosic, shifting effortlessly from the tragic balladry of Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ to his frenetic spitting out of Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ – his breath control alone is a marvel. He works the room like a predatory Butlins Redcoat, terrifying and tantalising us in equal measure as he moves among us, looking for his next victim to serenade, sit on, swish his bizarrely horse-tailed microphone over, or simply deepthroat their phone.

The gags (sometimes literal) come thick and fast, wickedly dirty and dangerously close to the bone at times. But there are moments of seriousness here too, and rue to the roots of cabaret, there’s a political edge to Kaye’s sharp tongue. He takes a swipe at the (very few) heterosexual men in the audience with a lesson in consent, a tale of teenage infatuation concludes with a homophobic beating, and neither the Australian nor British government emerge unscathed. His sensational encore is his take on an alternative Australian national anthem (because nowadays ‘national anthems are only sung by sports fans or cunts’), in the reimagined form of Men At Work’s ‘Down Under.’ I can’t think of a more appropriate finale to a festival that has showcased the very best of Australian and international cabaret talent.

Frisky & Mannish: PopLab runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, before embarking on a UK Tour. For further details, visit friskyandmannish.co.uk.

Cheeky Cabaret plays monthly at Brunswick Picture House in New South Wales. For further details, visit brunswickpicturehouse.com

Natalie Joy Johnson’s ‘Get Into It…Queen’ is available on iTunes and Spotify, under her alter-ego Miss Natalie. For further information visit nataliejoyjohnson.live

Reuben Kaye performs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer. For further details visit reubenkaye.com

© Sebastian King 2019

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Image © John Mcrae

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