The cabaret chanteuse brings her own brand of orchestrated chaos to the stage with the Sydney Symphony
Meow Meow – the pill-popping, desperately, fabulously dishevelled cabaret alter-ego of Australian performer Melissa Madden Gray – has had a big couple of years. She’s toured extensively with Barry Humphries in a show celebrating Weimar cabaret, she’s played Titania in the Globe Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and she’s developed a significant cult following for her solo shows in London and Europe.
Broadway recently came knocking, she tells the audience at her Sydney Festival show, but the producers she was due to work for have gone bust and she’s been left out in the cold. She’s now reduced to performing at the end of a jetty at the end of the world. Well, that’s how she characterises this performance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the Sydney Opera House’s largest venue.
Her grand entrance to this hallowed hall is a delight: she’s running very late and needs to find her way up to the stage, via the audience. Her dancing boys haven’t turned up, so she also requires the audience's help to prepare herself for this concert. With some orders barked in German, she mobilises her fans into an army to get her dressed and onto the stage, ready to perform a line-up of songs from the Weimar Republic and around Europe, laced with her own compositions
There’s little rhyme or reason to Pandemonium, which may largely be the point; the title would suggest as much. The concert sees the cabaret queen doing her absolute best to hold herself and the concert together as everything falls to pieces around her.
Everything, that is, except for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra which, under Iain Grandage’s baton, creates the sense of absolute chaos only possible with the greatest of discipline. That they’re able to follow Meow Meow’s every whim as a performer – even if the show isn’t quite as spontaneous as it may seem – is a credit to Grandage, the richly dramatic orchestrations and the orchestra itself. The players leap in and out of musical style and even find themselves becoming dramatically involved in the performance at several points.
But there are few moments when they’re legitimately allowed to soar; most of the songs are interrupted in some way by Meow Meow’s antics. On the one hand, you hope she’ll just stand still and deliver a song with the power that she’s able to conjure; on the other, you wish the ‘pandemonium’ were developed into some kind of complete dramatic arc.
Meow Meow’s schtick eventually wears thin: at one point she asks if we came to see a performance or if we came to see her fall apart. She then ponders if there’s really much difference. Unfortunately the ways she falls apart isn’t particularly thrilling when moved from the intimacy of a spiegeltent to the expanse of a concert hall, and it really doesn’t feel in aid of much in this show. The gags don’t feel particularly fresh and there’s one particular physical joke she repeats twice – it’s funny the first time and not so much the second.
Likewise, the audience participation – which feels properly dangerous and riotous in a smaller venue – feels a bit staid here, and ends up cutting into what would otherwise be a gorgeous performance of Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’. When she finally delivers a quiet, sensitive, but still theatrical finale of Patty Griffin’s ‘Be Careful’, you wish there’d been much more of this on display throughout the rest of the concert.
Part of that schtick behind Meow Meow's success is the character’s supreme self-obsession and self-indulgence. But unlike other Meow Meow shows I’ve seen, this one frequently tips into its own indulgences. There’s mountains of talent on stage and flashes of brilliance, but this two and a half hour show is calling out for an edit and a real focus.