There are many things you might expect when going into a nautical-themed cabaret show. Sailors. Mermaids. Fishy quips. What you might not expect is a running joke-slash-homage to 1990s R’n’B star Des’ree. But that’s just the sort of manic, fever-dream energy you have to lean into while watching SS Metaphor.
The self-described “disaster-movie-allegorical-farce-cabaret” is the work of theatre-maker and performer Ash Flanders, who in SS Metaphor has created something akin to Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh getting drunk on a party boat. After taking your seats at the Malthouse Outdoor Stage, you’re no longer part of the audience, but one of the treasured guests aboard a ship that’s been stuck at sea after a ten-day leisure cruise turned into a year-long exercise in purgatory due to an indeterminate disaster ashore.
If it hadn’t clicked yet, it’s here that you’ll start noticing the thinly veiled allusions to our current situation. A group of people isolated from the rest of the world due to a threat? Sounds familiar… Flanders uses the show to remind us of a litany of current existential threats to humanity, throwing a delectable serving of gallows humour into the performance. And just like in reality, the long haul, seemingly indefinite seclusion is starting to have an effect on the crew and passengers of the good ship SS Metaphor.
SS Metaphor stars a small but tight cast comprising Natalie Gamsu, Will Conyers, Zenya Carmellotti and Flanders himself. The production relies several times on the “show within a show” strategy, first with Gamsu’s sultry, bedazzled cruise singer (a role which Gamsu has previously held in real life). It’s an aggressively fervent performance. Then there’s Flander’s disgruntled maître d, forcefully taking his chance to perform his show of a lifetime – a goal he is committed to until the bitter end. Conyers, as the unflappable ship’s pianist, is a treat, especially in partnership with Carmellotti’s Jan; a disaffected, exasperated cruise ship passenger with a penchant for garbage spirals and a powerhouse voice.
The show’s humour ranges from twistingly clever to just plain absurd, with a number of hammy, pantomime-ish gags bringing the house down alongside eye-rolling mentions of the now cliched phrase, “we’re all in this together”. You can absolutely have a rollicking time watching SS Metaphor without thinking too much. Having said that, this is a show that was created out of one of the world’s longest lockdowns – and it really taps into that zeitgeist. It makes fairly transparent the connections between the hierarchies of a ship, and how different groups have experienced the pandemic.
In SS Metaphor, Flanders has achieved a work that sails between deeply funny and strangely deep in this allegorical antidote to lockdown. As Melbourne tiptoes, bleary-eyed out of lockdown, SS Metaphor comically guides us from the darkest waters to hopefully brighter shores.