Barry Humphries opened his atmospheric night of Weimar cabaret by firmly warning the audience off checking the footie score but he really needn’t have bothered: the assembled fans of classical music and retro-campery looked a bit baffled at the idea that there was a sports game on at all.
Humphries has joined forces with fellow Aussie star Meow Meow to present a deeply personal, slightly ramshackle, but utterly loveable kind of show. It opens with a long and rambling monologue about how, as a boy in post-war Melbourne, he jostled shoulders with refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria. Their music, which was banned by Hitler for being ‘degenerate’, enthralled him. The Aurora Orchestra take us through some familiar Weimar ditties, with a twist: Meow Meow delivers a fearsome, stomping German-language version of ‘Pirate Jenny’, the story of a girl who orders pirates to wipe out everyone who’s scorned her. But most of the night is more eclectic, reviving some delightful oddities, including a Dadaist hiss of voices that Humphries introduces as the world’s first rap. And still weirder, a bit of Max Brand’s ‘Maschinist Hopkins’ that features an unearthly machine violin melody from Satu Vänskä.
Humphries and Meow Meow’s stage relationship is totally adorable, even if their mock-flirtatious dances and duets sometimes feels like watching your parents prat about after a few too many glasses of sherry. Humphries periodically looks a bit surprised to be on stage in front of a full orchestra and a crowd of hundreds, especially when Meow Meow does her level best to cast him as a ravening sexual tiger who’s inches away from ripping off her flamboyant outfits.
Meow Meow pumps some energy and naughtiness into what's otherwise a pretty static affair, delivering virtuosic fake orgasms, making love to a chair, and generally embodying the kind of desperate, yearning hunger this music is soaked in. But the concert’s determinedly high-minded approach sometimes loses the songs’ original power. They’re mostly sung in German, without subtitles, and the translations offered feel a bit like an afterthought, as do the references to the grim fate of many of the Weimar cabaret's leading lights. Still, it's pretty magical to follow these two charismatic performers on a trip through their passions, and their enthusiasm brings new life to these subversive, lost songs.