At this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Larissa McGowan and Zoë Coombs Marr reawaken cabaret’s underground charge, says Ben Brooker
Since when did cabaret become little more than a spectacle of people singing other peoples’ songs, only half as giftedly? It’s a question previous Adelaide Cabaret Festivals have tended to leave dispiritingly in the mind, like a cover version you wish you’d never heard.
But with this year’s appointment of Julia Zemiro to the role of Artistic Director has come a palpable shift. Better known for her TV appearances – especially her hosting since 2005 of SBS’s music trivia show RocKwiz – Zemiro brings impressive credentials to the job: a long history of both dramatic and comedic roles on stage and screen, including a stint with Bell Shakespeare; a camp performance sensibility (see, for instance, her parodic Eurovision alter-ego Bronya), and a fondness for theatresports and improvised comedy (she even speaks French fluently, having been born in Southern France, which seems as persuasive a claim to the role as any).
Cabaret is unusual in that it is less often defined by its formal qualities than its context – the word, in its original use, referred simply to a small room – but Zemiro’s first program is a welcome reminder of the form’s quintessentially underground nature and subversive charge. Two solo works by women, albeit of markedly different performance stripes, exemplified this: dancer and choreographer Larissa McGowan’s Cher, falling intriguingly between tribute act to, and contemporary dance excavation of, the age-defying pop icon; and Zoë Coombs Marr’s An Evening With… which recapitulated the comedian’s previous, uncompromising standup shows while mining fresh veins of feminist critique for laughs both uncomfortable and cathartic.
When Larissa McGowan enters the stage in a fishnet body stocking, her face framed by masses of curly black hair, you could be forgiven for thinking you had turned up for a Cher tribute act. The wall-rattling soundtrack of If I Could Turn Back Time, to which McGowan lip-synchs with determined facial athleticism, seems to confirm it. But Cher (rhymes with “share”, I seem to remember, not “per”) quickly slides into something both stranger and more interesting.
We hear snatches of audio from The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour – the 1970s variety show Cher presented with her husband from 1971 until the couple’s divorce in 1974 – and the singer’s infamously fractious 1986 David Letterman interview. “I’m a fucking Oscar winner,” she snarls at one point in characteristically defiant fashion, her words mouthed by McGowan.
Gradually, the music video posturing of the opening number gives way to a supple but muscular choreography that suggests the singer’s tortured relationship with fame and expectation, and the demands of a male-dominated show business industry (Cher’s famous retort to her mother, heard here, goes” “mum, I am a rich man”). As Steve Mayhew’s sound design disrupts and fragments the familiar hits – I Got You Babe, Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves – the lip-synching breaks down too, McGowan’s mouth opening and closing over the words as though silently screaming.
Later, Cher’s 2010 power ballad You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me (“I am down but I’ll get up again / Don’t count me out just yet”) is served up relatively straight, McGowan straddling a chair in beaten-but-unbowed mode as though daring us to read the singer’s archetypal irony into a moment that seems shorn of it. Here, as elsewhere, we are made to feel implicated in Cher’s need for constant reinvention, which McGowan’s choreography and Sam Haren’s dramaturgy seem to suggest is both desperately performative and fiercely self-actualising.
In one sequence McGowan disappears behind designers Jonathon Oxlade and Renate Henschkes’ string curtain while a voiceover intones a list of emojis. It’s as though the singer is deciding which manufactured emotion will go best with her costume change, which, in the event, is an outsized wig of crimped black hair, a sort of monstrous, Brobdingnagian version of the Cher we know from the If I Could Turn Back Time video. The moment, like the work in general, is a sparkling reminder of the old maxim that one of the purposes of art is to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.
An Evening with Zoë Coombs Marr
In a recent interview, comedian Hannah Gadsby was asked about fellow standup Louis C.K., who is back in front of audiences after a hiatus precipitated by revelations of serial sexual misconduct: “He is a joke now,” Gadsby said, “and I think it’s important to keep making that joke.” Zoë Coombs Marr has opened for Gadsby before, and it’s clear from her latest show, simply titled An Evening with Zoë Coombs Marr, that the entertainment industry’s reckoning at the hands of the #MeToo movement has far from played itself out. For her, too, the joke – bitter though it may be – is still worth telling.
Coombs Marr has been part of this reckoning for some time, her cross-gendered alter-ego Dave holding a mirror up to the sexist banalities of male standup. It’s a theme the comedian, dispensing with Dave’s bad facial hair and bloodied face, and resplendent in red suit, black skivvy, and white sneakers, unapologetically returns to in An Evening With… She is especially unforgiving of the kind of “battle of the sexes” nonsense that seems to have died a thousand deaths and yet, zombie-like, shuffles on (“what are women thinking?” Coombs Marr asks, slipping into a Dave-like drawl, before answering in her own voice: “I don’t know; have you tried asking her?”) A long, absurdist riff on the joys of possessing a penis, meanwhile, exhausts itself amid waves of uneasy laughter. One shudders to think how much execrable stand up Coombs Marr must have had to endure to get this stuff so right.
No doubt Coombs Marr’s critiques of standup, like Gadsby’s, emerge from a genuine affection for the form (her nan, we learn in the course of the show, was a vaudevillian on the Tivoli Circuit). But there’s also a sense in which she is pushing against the constraints of the genre, and particularly the conventionally masculine virtues that have come to circumscribe it. She recounts, for example, a backstage encounter with a male comic who told her of his intention to “fuck the audience”, an anecdote that prompts both a delightfully risky joke about consent and also a heartfelt assurance that she will reciprocate our care for her (“I’ve got you,” she tells us, and we believe her).
The surprise appearance of a 14-member community choir – the culmination of one of the show’s longest set ups, about Coombs Marr’s participation in a regional music camp when she was in primary school – seems equally calibrated to subvert the blokiness of traditional standup. In part, perhaps, it’s a concession to the work’s context in a cabaret festival. But, even as Coombs Marr mines the choir’s incongruity for maximum laughs, such as during their rendition of Chandelier for which she dons a flesh-coloured leotard a la Sia’s child stand-in Maddie Ziegler, the effect is not just deconstructionist but also unexpectedly moving. When they perform The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realise?? – another nostalgic throwback to Coombs Marr’s formative years, albeit ones fuelled by MDMA rather than a love of musical theatre – I find myself close to tears. People singing other peoples’ songs, it turns out, can do that.