Anybody who believes Melbourne shuts up shop in winter is wrong. In many ways, winter is when classy, cultural Melbourne wakes up and shows itself off. And the Melbourne Cabaret Festival is fast becoming another of our city’s popular winter attractions. This week I’ve seen two very different shows that really demonstrate the range of what’s on offer during the festival: one sublime, one ridiculous, both intentionally so, and both worth seeing.
Sweet Dreams: Songs by Annie Lennox is written and directed by Dean Bryant and performed by singer and pianist Michael Griffiths who gets under the skin of Annie Lennox and revisits and recounts her career as a singer-songwriter and her life of love and heartbreak. With just his voice and a grand piano, this sexy, dapper and slightly cheeky gay singer transports the audience back to the early ’80s when Lennox, along with her one-time lover Dave Stewart, were hugely successful as the Eurythmics.
Griffiths doesn’t try to to impersonate, or even ‘channel’ Lennox; he simply inhabits her life through her music and links it with first-person reflections, often dry, wry and witty (just the way we like reflections). And it’s this simplicity that makes Sweet Dreams so effective.
With his strong and clear singing and evocative and accomplished piano arrangements, Griffiths shows how timeless and poignant Lennox’s songs are, full of raw emotion – mostly pain, jealousy and self-deprecating irony. He weaves songs and anecdotes from different periods in and out of each other, and tells a compelling and entrancing story. You can’t help but find yourself reassessing those old Eurythmics songs and albums and hear them afresh.
Of course, Griffiths does justice to songs such as ‘Love is a Stranger’, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’, ‘Why’, ‘Who’s That Girl’ and ‘Little Bird’, but what he does with other songs is quite incredible. By stripping away the 80’s over-production, songs such as ‘Right By Your Side’, ‘When Tomorrow Comes’ and ‘There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart) sound new, gentle, even wistful, and ‘This City Never Sleeps’ is truly hypnotic.
It’s an emotionally charged show, full of joy, sorrow, bitterness and hope, all the more effective thanks to some well-considered lighting design and the occasional use of some retro reverb on the microphone. Even if the Eurythmics and Annie Lennox weren’t an important part of your teenage years and musical development, Sweet Dreams will haunt your waking hours and sit nicely in your subconsciousness as you sleep. It’s an inspiring show not soon forgotten.
Maybe a little more immediate in its tone and production is Trevor Ashley’s new adults-only panto, Little Orphan trAshley. While the show was originally called ‘Trannie’, objections from the transgender community and the producers of the musical Annie required the name to be changed, Ashley’s not letting that stop him. He drops in quite a few bitchy one-liners about it – and just about everything else, from the recent Labor leadership spill to Linden Gallery’s ‘pornography’exhibition hoo-ha and many other cheeky, crass and downright wrong comments.
Which is what pantomime is all about, and as such, there is a loose, off-the-cuff feel to the show, but I don’t see that as a problem. In a nutshell (so to speak), it’s the story of Fanny (played, of course, by Ashley), an orphan left in the care of the drunk and nasty Miss Trannigan (played with wicked relish by Rhonda Burchmore, of course), but who is then ‘adopted’by millionaire Daddy Warhorse (Gary Sweet, having a great time, even if he looks like her has no idea of what’s going on – again, part of the point). But Fanny is actually transgendered and looking for someone to fund her gender reassignment surgery, and Daddy Warhorse fits the bill perfectly.
Naturally, the cast have great fun singing, dancing and swearing their way through the brisk parade of jokes and set pieces, held together tenuously by a bit of story, and while everyone is showing off their natural talents (Rhonda’s legs and stage prowess, Gary’s blokeyness and bald head, Trevor’s sharp tongue and comedic timing), Rhys Bobridge as the leathered-up dog Bullshit is the one who almost steals the show. Not just because he’s running around the stage on all fours yapping and whimpering like an excitable puppy with his bare arse in the air, but because he almost makes you believe he’s an actual dog.
According to those who saw the show in Sydney, this incarnation is much tighter, which is a good thing. Pantomime can easily become self-indulgent and smug, but Little Orphan trAshley isn’t. It’s self aware enough to know when to leave things alone, when to milk what’s working, and when to change horses midstream if necessary. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of wrong fun, and another show worth seeing.