Music, Reviews, Stage

Sydney Festival: Meow Meow's Little Mermaid review

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Meow Meow, the alter ego of Australian-born performer Melissa Madden Gray, is a cabaret machine: a self-created chanteuse following in the Weimar tradition of wild, bawdy, satirical entertainment. Underneath the clowning, the piles of black curls, blood-red lipstick and fishnets, lies an intellect and an artist with challenging ambitions.
So it’s only appropriate that she take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (the second in her “Little” cabaret trilogy), a dark and violent fairytale that’s been reimagined into many more children-friendly iterations over the last two centuries, most obviously Disney’s 1989 musical film.
Meow Meow’s version isn’t so much an adaptation, but a 70-minute cabaret meditation on the story and its themes, which takes place in the violent and terrifying world in which we live. The show kicks off with a gorgeously cynical rendition of Black’s Wonderful Life before Meow Meow launches into a monologue about how she’s unsure if she can deliver the night of fun and frivolity the audience is there for considering all that’s going wrong in the world (did I mention she’s following in the Weimar cabaret traditions?). She promises that this is a show about happiness, but it’s pretty difficult to believe that could be true at the outset.
It soon becomes clear that Meow Meow, like the Little Mermaid herself, is looking for happiness and love, and will go to extraordinary lengths to get it (even if that involves searching for it in the sea of her audience). She doesn’t end up selling her tongue to a sea witch or committing herself to a life of excruciating pain, but there is a bit of light self-mutilation to fit the desires of the man she falls for (played by a swoon-worthy and very funny Chris Ryan). He’s a self-professed “legs man”, so she loses the tail and steps into one glittering stiletto and one ballet pointe shoe, and painfully throws herself around the stage with the help of a crutch.
Even if you don’t want to spend the 70 minutes reading into the various images (there’s a Meow Meow sex doll and a mannequin made up of mismatched male and female body parts), there’s plenty of joy to be found in the gags and music alone.
Most of the songs in the show are original pieces performed by Meow Meow, supported by the very sharp Siren Effect Orchestra. The eclectic compositions — which range from pastiche to heart-rending blues-inspired ballads — are by Jherek Bischoff, Iain Grandage, Kate Miller-Heidke, Amanda Palmer and Megan Washington. The band is led by Jethro Woodward and they bring just as much grunt and power as Meow Meow’s voice, which fills the Spiegeltent with roars and purrs.
There’s also plenty of magic in the physical production, directed with great sensitivity by Michael Kantor with a glam/scrap design, taking its cues from all things aquatic, by Anna Cordingley.
The final few minutes look and sound beautiful, but I’m not entirely sure this “happy” ending is the perfect one. Maybe there is no perfect ending in the imperfect world Meow Meow inhabits.
In any case, I’ve seen plenty of talented circus performers fly through a Spiegeltent in the last few years, and, although she’s not performing any great technical feat, nobody does it with the grace or sense of whimsy that Meow Meow brings to the stage. A stunning performance.
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[box]Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Hyde Park until January 23, and tours to Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre from 28 January to 14 February and then to Perth International Arts Festival from February 24 to 28.
Featured image by Prudence Upton[/box]

2 responses to “Sydney Festival: Meow Meow's Little Mermaid review

    1. She’s also coming to other states as part of various festivals; ie PIAF in Perth for example. Check your local listings, might be able to find her at something :).

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