By Lisa Lanzi
“I may be gay, but I’m not THAT cabaret” as an opening line and song sets the tone for Slap and Tickle at The Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Multi-talented iOTA (Slap) is outfitted in a spotted leotard and leatherette shorts as a madcap Pierrot with Russell Leonard (Tickle) as the oft exploited gimp in full regalia including hood. Both these performers are Helpmann Award winners and have wide-ranging and successful careers. There are many musicians on stage, amazing vocals, spectacle and fine choreography woven into the performance but something does not quite gel in this offering.
Clowning, camp vaudeville, lewd over-the-top characters feature and chaos reigns amidst the clutter of costumes and props but there is no doubt iOTA has stage presence, a powerhouse voice and dynamism. The constant features of the production are the remarkable range and quality of iOTA’s vocals and Russel Leonard’s movement prowess and choreographic skills. While there are some poignant moments the storyline is somewhat loose but hey, it’s cabaret!
We are entertained by a cast of characters making ‘guest’ appearances and they, and all their songs, are created by iOTA. Sirena the Mistress Of The Sea is a maritime Cruella de Vil returning from betrayal and drowning to seek revenge. Wayno Braino flounces onto the stage with mind-reading talent and a foul bogan vocabulary and eventually ‘ejaculates’ glitter after the vile ‘thoughts’ of the audience arouse him. A statuesque and fading star Eva The Diva is a Marilyn-crossed-with-Hedwig construct (complete with the most fabulous feather stole) who croons When I Sing in a Musical. There is a melancholy frog, a wolf-man and Sammy the Snake puppet - all with their own signature songs and styles, and each with a different schtick. Every song fetches a different tone from iOTA from almost counter tenor highs to smoky jazz lows and Broadway belts.
Each character also has their signature physicality which in some cases would challenge a lesser singer. Cross-legged on his lily pad, iOTA’s Sad Frog sings a powerful ballad and maintains incredible diction and projection in the seated position. The wolf man persona also channels a genius lower register vocal fry that would do Tom Waits or the Tuvan throat singers proud. Even more astonishing, this wolfish character sports a hunched and contracted posture while generating the growly vocals. All these original songs illustrate the created characters perfectly and the visceral energy and presence that iOTA generates is substantial.
Russell Leonard is responsible for the choreography in this cabaret creation and also personifies Tickle, the gimp. The narrative centres on the somewhat abusive relationship between clown and gimp whether that be sexual pleasuring or servitude. Slap (the clown) relies on Tickle to set the stage for them, clean up the mess, serve the cocaine and generally carry out whatever is needed to keep the crowd focussing on the arrogant clown and his creations. Little by little Tickle evolves to want more and Leonard’s final movement solo is a welcome surprise. The grace and expression contained in this piece and the outstanding movement vocabulary was riveting.
The jazz orchestra providing the musical accompaniment was exceptional. It was annoying that there was no credit by the Festival as to who these musicians were or where they came from. Apart from the musical backing for the songs, at times the orchestra was responsible for providing expertly cued ‘sound effects’ to match certain slapstick movement routines from Slap and Tickle… including the occasional fart gag.
The set consisted of a circular carpet denoting the central performing area with each side of the stage signifying backstage prop storage and dressing room. The various costume-changing activities and considerable props-gathering tasks in these side stage areas was often somewhat clunky and detracted from the polish of the central action. The ‘reveal all’ set was obviously deliberate but needed better management. The odd technical problem was also apparent with costume changes chafing the still-live microphone and entrances and exits being lit poorly (or mistakenly?) causing interruptions to the flow of the performance.
Despite any misgivings I may have there seemed to be groups in the audience who were massive fans of iOTA. There were a few elements of the performance I did not find amusing or entertaining, despite the undeniable talent of the performers, but considering the whoops and laughter, others obviously did. I am only one member of a nearly full house but I am left with the perplexing dichotomy of relishing and appreciating the considerable talents and vibrancy of these performers but not really enjoying the whole that was Slap and Tickle.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.