The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival Hub, Hyde Park
January 8, 2016

“Love is a lot like a bubble,” so the queen of Australian cabaret, Meow Meow, tells us. “It starts off shiny and wonderful and miraculous, but then it pops, leaving you covered in a sticky residue.” Brimming with wonderfully witty, deliciously salacious musings like this, Meow Meow’s most recent creation, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s aquatic fable, is a slick, savvy and ever so sexy sashay through the briny deep. Using the Little Mermaid’s quest for love as a jumping off point for a hysterical ramble through her own chequered romantic past, Meow Meow is more interested in sending herself up than her source material. In her own words, she isn’t waving, she’s clowning.

A heady mix of Marlene Dietrich, Dita Von Teese and Princess Margaret circa 1950, with a voice as smooth as satin and as intoxicating as absinth, this 21st-century chanteuse is an irresistibly seductive presence on stage. Despite this sultry packaging, Meow Meow has an unquenchable need to be adored, and it’s this curious combination of burlesque bravado and charming befuddlement that grabs hold of an audience, hook, line and sinker.

But there’s more to this cabaret visionary than smoky vocals, double entendres and a nearly untameable cleavage. There’s a delicate equilibrium in what Meow Meow offers; the balance of pin-sharp one-liners delivered with spot on comic timing, moments of more touching reflection and an expertly judged amount of audience participation is achieved with astonishing precision. There is a giddy atmosphere of ramshackle chaos, but not for one second is Meow Meow ever out of control.

(Photo: Prudence Upton)

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Little Mermaid is the amount of quiet sophistication that bubbles just beneath the surface of this superbly crafted production. Her resources may appear meagre on first glance, but Meow Meow can take puns and make poetry, and with just a sex doll in a wig, an old mannequin and a pair of rubber flippers, fashion something truly beautiful and insightful. Even within the relatively compact surroundings of the Sydney Festival’s Famous Spiegeltent, every element, from the set to the lighting to the excellent Siren Effect Orchestra, were conceived and executed with a level of polish that raises the bar for cabaret to new heights.

For this show Meow Meow has recruited co-conspirator Chris Ryan to up the ante of this romp through the watery recesses of her subconscious. There must be very few who could favourably measure up to the sky-high standards set by Meow Meow, but Ryan manages to comfortably keep pace, both in terms of vocal prowess and comic flare.

There’s also an impressive elegance to the flow of this production, with ingenious twists and well managed pacing that marries the unpretentious laissez faire ethos of comic cabaret to a more meticulous theatrical pedigree. Yet this is done without sacrificing any of the off-the-cuff whimsy that has always made Meow Meow so enchanting.

But technical kudos aside, Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid achieves something quite rare and special: it inspires the kind of addictive elation that makes you want to see it again the second it finishes. Meow Meow may still be searching for love, but judging by the ecstatic reception from last night’s packed-to-the-rafters audience, I’d say she’s found it.

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is at the Sydney Festival’s Famous Spiegeltent until January 23, at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne January 29 – February 14 and Perth International Arts Festival  February 24 – 28. 

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