Cabaret is entertainment with a sting in the tail, and the performer isn’t doing their job if the audience doesn’t feel a little uncomfortable – or at least challenged – every once in a while. The twist here is that Isabel Hertaeg adopts a very prim and proper persona as Lady Cordelia Winterbottom as an effective contrast to the decidedly unrespectable nature of most of what she actually says.
Lady Cordelia instructs the audience in ‘how to be a lady’ and finds delight in discovering a recipe for cucumber sandwiches. She dispenses pearls of domestic wisdom like Martha Stewart on crack but every few minutes feels a song coming on (the segues are not exactly seamless but this is part of the fun).
These are not ‘good girl’ songs. In If I Can’t Take It With Me (Eartha Kitt) Cordelia celebrates her mercenary side, in Chocolate Jesus (Tom Waits), she embraces a rather dubious brand of Christianity. Before tackling In Old Mexico (Tom Lehrer), she recalls how she once ‘accidentally’ killed a man, having mistaken him for a piñata. Even My Favourite Things (Rogers and Hammerstein) from The Sound of Music seems a bit kinky the way Hertaeg performs it here.
The Lounge Set is retro cool in the same way that lawn bowls became hip a few years ago or that bar in Melbourne where you can sip on Pimms in an atmosphere reminiscent of a 1950s garden party (Madam Brussels); but luckily it’s more than that. Actually the night I saw the show it was fascinating to observe that some of the audience seemed genuinely a little shocked by Lady Cordelia’s antics, although you could see something more sexually provocative in a Hilary Duff video these days.
The females in these songs are of the kind who know what they want and aren’t afraid to say so. Lady Cordelia is a marvellously bold creation, undermining the propaganda of propriety in the best tradition of Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, an unabashed gold digger, or Julia in Margery Sharp’s delightful 1930s novel The Nutmeg Tree, a woman who never denies her baser instincts but manages to always comes out on top.
In an age where Jessica Simpson is a paragon of femininity and women are famous for their marriages and glamorous lifestyles as much as for anything they may have achieved or said, the characters in The Lounge Set actually do seem rather radical.
But the biggest draw here is Hartaeg’s powerful voice. She handles a range of styles with aplomb, even throwing in a bit of La Boheme, transporting the audience to a very different place for a few minutes. The beauty of The Lounge Set is Hertaeg’s ability to switch moods quickly, taking on the emotion of each song but reverting effortlessly to her core persona.
I don’t know if the show finishes as strongly as it might, the rendition of A Woman Wouldn’t Be a Woman (Shinbone Alley) seems not as comfortable as the rest, but this is a minor complaint. Hertaeg is a talented performer with an appreciation of great music and high camp. Best of all, she performs with relish and humour. The occasional Melbourne references are also welcome and this local flavour to Hertaeg’s banter is something that could be developed further. It’s to be hoped that this show will be back soon for another season and that it will continue to evolve.
The Lounge Set
Venue: The Butterfly Club | 204 Bank St, Sth Melbourne
Dates/Times: Friday Dec 14 @ 7pm, Saturday Dec 15 @ 7pm, Sunday Dec 16 @ 6pm
Tickets: $20 / $15