Melb Cabaret Festival: Laughing Behind the Piano

Laughing behind the Piano is a strange title, but so appropriate because Melbourne’s Peter Hurley is a man to whom laughter comes easily and the piano is tantamount to a mask, giving him the licence to deliver his particular brand of humour.

Peter Hurley
Peter Hurley

He’s also laughing because it took him 18 months after a serious accident to return to cabaret, pointing out, with tongue in cheek, that compulsory commercial television watching in hospital made it a necessity.

The first cabaret was performed in Montmartre, Paris, in 1881 and, thankfully, the tradition was still alive and well in the Globe’s tiny theatre, an ideal venue for the devoted fans who climbed the stairs with their chardonnay, already giggling at memories of Hurley’s past performances.

Hurley believes performers “bathe in reflected glory” and it was clear that he revels in the rebounding pleasure brought by his wit and synchronised piano playing, honed through early training as a classical pipe organ player and then jazz musician.  Whether it was his “holy grail of self-improvement” (‘I’m Giving up Jogging Today’) or his impudent takes on food, sex, desire or the carbohydrate diet, the audience was always with him, even, on command, neighing like goats or barking like sheep dogs to accompany his shot at New Zealand – lots of lambs and sheep and lambs and sheep and the occasional goat!

Hurley had no need to explain that he had adapted some great standards like ‘Pro Music Antiqua’, first presented in 1952 by Noah Greenberg; Noel Coward’s ‘Every Peach out of Reach is Attractive’, written when Coward was only 16; or icon Blossom Dearie’s ‘Bruce’. The sophisticated audience was familiar with the tunes and Hurley’s witty translations gave them yet another life.

Essentially though, it was clearly his long-time personal and varied experience with music theatre that enthralled his mature audience, many of whom could relate to his satire about the Macdonald’s protests conflict in the hills region of Victoria or the disenchantment of sitting through tedious annual Eisteddfod appearances to support one’s children, ‘the thin lips of the ladies of the auxilliary’, ‘the backstage wobblies of budding sopranos’, the endless repetition of Fur Elise.  Forget the saxophone, “buy your kids a pair of roller blades!” he trumpeted.

Then, it was over to Europe and ‘Paris in the Spring’ and the ‘French Bisexual Tango’ followed by ‘Friends’ (a subtle warning about careless indulgence in ‘the rich banquet of life’), after a warning to parents who might have actually brought their children to Laughing Behind the Piano!

‘It doesn’t matter if you sing out of tune as long as you’re German, Johnny’ was a hit for those who could remember cabaret performances by Marlene Deitrich or, at least, Cabaret with its deadpan presentation.

That’s the magic of cabaret for which a good performer must be a clever storyteller as well as actor whose eye contact, facial expressions and gestures are exposed to his audience in a truly close encounter, particularly of the Peter Hurley kind, the kind that shakes each member of his audience’s hand as he/she leaves and thanks them for coming.  

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