Now in its sixth year, the Melbourne Cabaret Festival is still struggling to become a well-known event on the city’s arts calendar. I attended the initial festival in 2010 and was delighted that Melbourne was finally getting an event entirely devoted to cabaret – my favourite art form. Beginning with six nights of shows in South Melbourne, the festival has grown to incorporate dozens of performers spread over two weeks.
Sadly, it has been unable to attract significant funding, especially from the state government, and has not developed as local cabaret lovers might have hoped and expected it would. Unfortunately, this year’s opening gala confirmed my fears that the Melbourne Cabaret Festival has a long way to go to be considered alongside its marvellous Adelaide counterpart, or even alongside other Melbourne arts festivals such as the fringe and Midsumma.
While the gala began strongly, the quality of the acts deteriorated as it went on, and it was also plagued by sound problems and lighting errors. There was something wrong with this venue for cabaret. I’m not sure if the stage was too high and therefore the performers were too far removed from the audience, or the lack of raked seats, or whether the audience needed more ‘priming’ before the show, or whether the standard of performance simply wasn’t good enough – whatever the case, something was lacking, and the atmosphere was all wrong.
The inimitable Dolly Diamond opened the show with a terrific medley of songs from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and was joined by the men and women of Suade and Ginger and Tonic for a strong finish to the number. The gala’s host, Rob Mills, then took the stage for a lively performance with the two groups. Mills’s hosting throughout was very good, and even when he stuffed up the occasional name or word, his charm more than made up for the error. He made me look forward to seeing his individual show later in the festival.
If a gala is meant to give you a taste of the acts on offer at a festival and encourage you to run out and book tickets to see the ones you like, then I imagine many audience members did just this for the standout acts. For me, these were Peter J Casey, whose clever original songs – especially the one about celebrity chef Pete Evans – compare favourably with the great Tom Lehrer; Annie Lee, whose take on German cabaret from the early 1930s was wonderfully bonkers and superbly performed; and Strange Bedfellows (Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen), who provided a shot of energy with their wicked gender-bending operatic stylings.
Also good were Noni McCallum and the aforementioned a cappella groups Suade and Ginger and Tonic. Alas, the final act, Queens of the City, was poor. While the three queens’ costumes were pretty great, the world of drag has moved on from tired jokes about lesbians and Cher; I don’t need to hear lines that Miss Candee was doing 20 years ago at 3 Faces, thanks.
All in all, a very mixed night. I fear the Melbourne Cabaret Festival has gone backwards in terms of the standard of performers – I really hope the organisers can turn this around for next year and the years following.