Opera biopic sees Weimar cabaret meet 80s pop with a dollop of dirtiness.

The Vanguard, Newtown, Sydney
May 3, 2015

Ever wondered what the love children of Mae West and Richard O’Brien might turn out like? Well, if your curiosity outweighs your squeamishness you need to check out Opera Australia star turns Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen in their filthy, dirty cabaret-cum-biopic (with the emphasis on the middle of those three hyphenated words).

Dark and Breen are the aforementioned strange bedfellows – a pair of long-term best mates who a few years ago chose to co-parent despite them being in many ways chalk and cheese. Under the Covers tells part of that story and a fair bit more if you read between the lines, yet despite their avowed desire to shock and awe us with a comedic tirade of verbal filth and degradation the evening turns out to contain as much painful truth as it does scatological humour. Don’t worry, though – if you go along for the poo jokes you won’t be disappointed!

Photo: Darren Robinson

The structure of the show is relatively clear: Who was she before? Who was he before? How did they make a baby? Alongside that we get a raft of relationship songs, a few gender politics turns and some highly risqué riffs on paedophilia, coprophilia and a few other philias too rare to mention. It could use a little clarification, a bit of tightening, and the end turns out to be bleaker than the presumably real life happy family that is the Dark/Breen ménage. But as an example of imaginative programming, eclectic song choices, quirky arrangements and a few well-crafted original numbers (Dark’s self-penned ode to the embryos she made and lost during IVF is clever, poignant and put across in style), it’s an evening that holds the attention.

Not wishing to spoil the fun, there are some classy classics from Brecht, Weill, Eisler, Brel and the searingly appropriate Maskulinium Femininium by Mischa Spoliansky. Then there are a number of subverted pop hits from the likes of Robbie Williams, Kaiser Chiefs, Crissie Amphlett and Marc Almond to keep you laughing at the musical cleverness (the way Schubert’s Erlkönig morphs into Tainted Love – in Deutsch – is sheer genius). And to really turn the knife, there are three black as pitch songs by Amanda (F**king) Palmer of Dresden Dolls fame.

Photo: Darren Robinson

Despite their high-art pedigree, Dark turns out to have a fine jazz belt and can supplement it with the odd bit of operatic scat. A Junoesque figure in black she sports some remarkable upholstery and has a natural warmth to her delivery that wins hearts and minds early on. Breen, the more acerbic character, despite his predilection for being a glory hog, is a fine comic actor and clearly loves his partner in crime. His gorgeous instrument is able to blare or croon at will (his reflective coming of age Leiber and Stoller song is to die for).

Pianist and musical director Darryl Wallis keeps it all rolling along in style despite becoming the butt of several of Breen’s jokes.