Short & Sweet Cabaret & The Best (And Worst) Of Queenie Van De ZandtLeft – Queenie van de Zandt

It's a chilly Saturday night in Melbourne, so what else is there to do but head to Emerald Hill and hang out at the South Melbourne Town Hall and surrounds. Doesn't sound very appealing until you add that that's where the second Melbourne Cabaret Festival took place.

It was a mixed vibe on this particular Saturday night. The box office was one of those portable boxes you see on building sites and there were issues with power with the staff having to rifle through the tickets with torches to see in the fading light. More friendly and chipper staff you couldn't find, especially given the conditions. There wasn't exactly a crowd gathering and it was hard to know what the night was going to be like. There just wasn't much of a festival spirit in the air.

Inside, however, the bars were cosy and quite full of the kind of mixed crowd cabaret pulls. The full spectrum of age was covered with older folk making up the majority. Everyone was in a good mood, looking forward to a night of entertainment in any of the seven performance spaces on offer.

First up for us was Short & Sweet Cabaret in the Town Hall's Council Chamber. There was no getting around that this was an odd performance space. Seating was not ideal and some patrons chose particularly poorly and were barely able to see the stage.

As for the acts... five performances in rapid succession over one hour with no gap in changeover. Mercedes Benz: Awkwardly was first. With a name like that I was expecting a cheesy drag act, but Mercedes (Hannah Williams) is all woman. She is a stripper with anecdotes and songs of the nitty gritty of being an exotic performer. As you'd expect, it's not exotic, some of it is funny with an undercurrent of sadness never far away.

Next was the Porcelain Punch Traveling Medicine Show (written and performed by Emilie Johnston, Madeline Hudson and Paul Bourke), a kind of Vaudevillian act that drew its humour from its weirdness. It raised the odd smirk from this writer but overall I just couldn't see it working for a full length performance; daffy lyrics and funny voices only go so far.

Two Of A Kind are identical twin sisters Mara and Dace Kapsis and their routine was all about the pros and cons of being identical. Very polished, lovely voices and acting, and a routine perfectly suited to this short format. Very engaging.

Torn: Ten Minutes of First Dates was next and was the highlight of this collection of short acts. Jordan Bowering recounts four very different first dates. Very camp, very funny.

Very camp and very funny the final performance was not. Chants Des Catacombes by Anna Boulic was a beautifully Gothic performance in French to the accompaniment of some exquisite harp playing. Darkly peaceful to watch, this was a performance just as well enjoyed with eyes closed, the melancholic mood broken only when an audience member's mobile phone rang – apparently for the second night in a row. Boulic snapped briefly but continued the performance and pulled the mood back in a very professional manner.

Outside, we took in the amazing light show projected onto the Town Hall, grabbed a drink at the tiny and quirky Butterfly Bar and mingled with friendly cabaret fans, many dressed in costume. Wandering through the Emerald Hill open area, doors opened and close and the sounds of cabaret and applause spilled out.

We headed to the Auspicious Arts Incubator to catch The Best (And Worst) Of Queenie Van De Zandt. This venue had the feel of an after-hours admin office... mainly because it was an after hours admin office. Throughout the show, the wonderfully effervescent Queenie got good value out of our modest surrounds (“If anyone wants a pencil, I have a stash out the back.).

I have to confess, I wasn't previously familiar with the work of this particular performer. I don't think this would bother her because she gave us the kind of retrospective performance usually given by divas who have achieved stellar fame – only by her own admission, she wasn't famous. This is not to say she doesn't have an impressive body of work under her belt (parts in big musical productions such as Les Miserable, for example), or that she doesn't have the stories to tell or a voice that makes your skin tingle. In fact she has all of the above to fill an hour and leave you wanting more. Which is precisely what happened.

She tells stories of her early performing life, the struggles to get the part, hilarious stories of inappropriate auditions and even more hilarious stories of near onstage disaster. The anecdotes are punctuated by songs in that powerful voice than can be funny one moment, and have you choked with emotion the next. She has a gutsy joie de vivre and a wonderfully earthy sense of humour (the vagina woman story is unforgettable – so funny, so well told) and blends self-deprecation with a you-gotta-laugh approach to life. Every artist's life is built on struggle and Queenie, it would seem, has rolled with the punches; it's hard to imagine her ever not achieving success.

At one point there was a kind of mini-mass exodus of half a dozen people either leaving for another show or having synchronised bladders. Queenie took this on the chin, turned it into something funny and for a while there the audience and performer were lost in a different kind of laughter, a shared laughter that said WTF just happened? It was quite beautiful. Regardless of whether you are familiar with Queenie van de Zandt or not, if you don't go and see her next time she performs you are missing out on some very fine cabaret.

And no doubt, having only seen a mere handful out of the hundred or so performers on offer over the Melbourne Cabaret Festival this year, I also missed out on much fine cabaret. Next time I'll be a better boy scout.

2011 Melbourne Cabaret Festival

Short & Sweet Cabaret
Venue: Council Chamber, South Melbourne Town Hall

Date/Time: Friday 22 to Sunday 24 July, all three shows at 6.15pm
Tickets: $35 / $32
Duration: 60 minutes approx

The Best (and Worst) of Queenie van de Zandt
Venue: The Incubator, Auspicious Arts, 228 Bank Street
Dates: Friday 22 to Sunday 24 July, 2011
Time: 8.15pm
Tickets: $40 / $37
Duration: 60 minutes approx

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