Review By Lisa Lanzi
Take one very talented, passionate, young(ish) person with songs to sing, a story to divulge, place them on an intimate stage, add fine direction and accompaniment et voilà … a rising star of Cabaret is discovered.
BJ (Brenton) Shaw greeted the “guys, gals and non-binary pals” as he strolled on stage and launched into songs and stories chronicling his life so far, a “love letter from a 90s kid”. With a sprinkling of 90s hits and three of his own extraordinary compositions, the soundtrack of a young life is revealed; a life lived with so many layers plus the discomfiture of being a little different than those around him. Shaw described himself as a ‘textbook gay kid (gay AF) in rainbow overalls with a bowl haircut, running away from the ball’ and an intense passion for The Spice Girls and their music.
Appropriately, as the proud owner of EVERY Spice Girls CD and VHS-recorded interview, Shaw began with Stop and Wannabe as he whipped off his elegant velvet jacket to reveal a very fine sequined ‘Spice Up Your Life’ t-shirt. Poignant anecdotes tumbled out, for instance, the cultivation of a superpower (invisibility) as a protective device, slinking behind the shelter shed or lurking on the edges so that others might not question or challenge, or bully. Shaw worked out that he was a queer kid in a country school and a ‘spice girl’ in a rap world, and a mournful version of Coolio’s Gangsta's Paradise certainly got that across. He also likened himself to the societal equivalent of David Attenborough - a keen observer of how to dress, move, fit in, camouflage as necessary, survive.
We were privileged to hear tales of memorable moments - a crush on a girl who sang, special times with a loving mother who adored music, first steps into performing and finding it wonderfully addictive. Shaw speaks so eloquently and reverently of his mum, a self-proclaimed, guitar-playing ‘legend in her own lounge room’ and someone who gave him access to such a variety of music: Cat Stevens, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Nana Mouskouri to name a few. Songs in this section were from Savage Garden (I Want You) and Gang of Youths (Magnolia).
There are also loving mentions throughout the show of Shaw’s father, Mark. A painter and decorator, a Geelong native, and a devoted, supportive parent, but sadly no longer on this earth.
The highlight for me was The Painter, written by Shaw about his dad, filled with lyrics any poet would be proud of, and a chorus that shifts slightly as time passes within the unfolding of the song. One of three original compositions performed and self-accompanied on piano throughout Little Man, it is during these songs where Shaw’s talent truly shines; his writing, the authentic delivery and his beautiful voice at its most comfortable. The other two songs also are simply elegant and deeply affecting when, as this performer puts it “you are told every day that you can’t be who you are”: One Way To Live and the finale My Colours Are My Own. It isn’t often an original and worthy cabaret/musical theatre voice emerges so we can only hope that Shaw continues to compose and perform.
No autobiographical account of a young life can be told without allusion to the discovery of first love and those first tentative steps toward physical love. In Little Man we are told of a first, closeted love discovered on a school trip to Western Australia. The tender and gentle telling is another poetic highlight capped with the Kurt Elling arranged Sleeping, Waking/In The Wee Small Hours. Although Shaw’s voice was not always as strong here in the lower registers, his connection and the delivery was a delight. We also heard tales of Shaw’s higher education adventures in the US, Adelaide and Ballarat and the journey to this performance through loneliness, grief, loss, love and self-discovery with songs like No Aphrodisiac (The Whitlams), Out Tonight from RENT and Space They Cannot Touch (Kate Miller-Heidke).
In this warm, beautifully crafted and first solo cabaret gig, Shaw is directed by Catherine Natasha Campbell, herself one of Adelaide’s cabaret royals who is also possessed of insightful dramaturgical skills. On piano, Mat Morison was the perfect, attentive accompanist and the Nexus stage was set in minimalist fashion so that the story and the music, both personal and universally relatable, could shine.
Anyone living with ‘difference’ as an intrinsic element of their nature, whether LGBTQUI, disabled, anxious, nerdy, shy… or… you name it, will find meaningful resonance within this deeply considered cabaret offering. With a final quote from Oliver Reeson, one of the contributors to Growing Up Queer In Australia (Benjamin Law, editor) “there is no deadline for growing up, no submission date for your life's narrative” and a rousing, brief encore of Stop we exit BJ (Brenton) Shaw’s performance but definitely want more from this talent as soon as possible. I predict this life’s narrative will continue to thrive, surprise and entertain.