The newly revamped (yes, again; it's been a long, progressive process) King Street (formerly Newtown) Theatre has fraternised with Sydney's not so very fringe festival to deliver a number of productions of which, I believe, Rachel Collis' one-woman cabaret is the first. Given the pedigree of King Street over recent years, I won't pretend I embarked on my evening with particularly high expectations. Yet what I found was sheer genius. Imagine the love-child of a menage a trios between, mmm, I don't know, maybe Sondheim, Midler & Minchin. You're getting close to the unpredictable versatility and prodigy of Collis' songwriting. (Actually, I now discover I've been pipped at the post: she or someone near has already described her as 'Tim Minchin with tits'.)
She's quite a fine and powerful singer too; has comic sensibility that even transcends opening night nerves and can seamlessly shift from ridicule to rending of the heart. To top it all off, she's her very own musical director, banging a box with the kind of underlying finesse that suggests intensive formal training.
Unlike a great deal of cabaret, her patter is relatively minimal, serving only to sew her song cycle together. Comedically, there's something of the Judith Lucy about her sardonic demeanour, which never veers too far from sadness, no matter how caustically funny. The show as a whole charts a course across the choppy ocean of relationships, inspired it appears, at least in some measure, by her own ten-year marriage. The Lucy resemblance is, perhaps, just a little too strong and her deliberation (only) marginally too drawn-out. But there was nary a falter (I may've detected but one bum pain note), so these are mere quibbles. And it compliments director, longtime friend and mentor, Kelly Young, as much as Collis.
Fifteen songs in seventy minutes or so might well be some kind of cabaret record. And what songs. They chart a genuine journey of trial and tribulation. She takes us down her long and winding road to self-discovery and individuation as a married woman; recounting the loves, lusts and infatuations which preceded her marriage to a real man (you know, the kind that farts in bed). It sounds like finding her own voice has been an arduous trip, but an immensely worthwhile and rewarding one. And not just for her.
The title song is in a minor key (she seem to like those) and sounds a little, or a lot, like a wind ruffling one's hair, bringing with it an air of foreboding. 'I have a tale to tell and, if you listen well, you'll hear my voice, among the mountains, when you call'. But long before we're surreptitiously lured into this aching poignancy, we hear a confession. 'I didn't realise that getting married would result in being married.' Her aim and game seems to be to deconstruct and do away with fairtytale notions of love and marriage, which only lead us down the garden path to almost inevitable disappointment.
I'm unsure of titles, but a song which is probably known as something like Damned If I Don't channels Jewish folk and even liturgical music, with its chorus of 'yi-dah-di da-da di-di, dah-dah-di da-da di-di!', but guilt and a pervasive existential crisis based in feelings of inadequacy and illegitimacy: 'I'm damned if I do, and I'm damned if I don't, and they said that I shouldn't, so I didn't, 'cause I couldn't, and I probably won't'. Yes, 'listen up sinners, if you know what's good for you, stay on the straight and narrow, if you know what's good for you; for only the psychologically fit have the discipline to escape the fiery pit'. But even the threat of eternal damnation can't quite quell the urge to, say, 'try sexual practices with cunning Latin names', or drink quantities of alcohol commensurate with Charlie Sheen's intake.
Song For Steve manages to be a touching ballad, while never resoling from hilarious home truths: it postulates that real man really fart in the opening line: 'you fart in bed so loud, it makes the mattress vibrate; not in an erotic way, it only makes me irate; but I'll never find a man, who doesn't, who's straight.' It mischievously mocks the seriousness of the dreaded man flu ('you catch a tiny cold, and you act all woebegone') and comments on masculine jokes of questionable taste ('you make innuendo which isn't sexy, it's just wrong'). It crossly concedes male video game supremacy ('you never let me hold the highest Angry Birds score for long). But then comes the surge of true love, as the melody soars: 'if you think I've gone and married myself a dud, well love is supposed to look like this'. Not many can carry off this kind of song, mingling comedy with tenderness. And all in all, it's the antidote to the blind lust embodied in another of her songs, an ode to Pablo, the Brazilian waxer.
But perhaps the clincher was the song her director allegedly forbade from inclusion in the show; finally relenting to allow it as an encore. If The Germans Had Won The War keenly observes 'our trains would run on time' and 'our beer would be nicer; instead of shit, I'd haste scheisse'. Hardly anyone dares this digress into this degree of political incorrectness nowadays, but I didn't sense any hesitation or embarrassment in the steady stream of laughter it provoked. 'We'd sing hallelujah, our fuhrer!' and, lest we forget, 'I'd be blonder and taller, but my library would be smaller, if the Germans had won the war'. She whoops it up with a knee-slapping, Oktoberfestive polka-like rhythm, mangling and strangling her own lyrics with the thickest and most stubborn of accents.
Before this, though, she reprises The Art Of Letting Go, with its freewheeling piano accompaniment: 'I carried my burden down to the river, my knuckles were white from clutching so tight'. Hands up those who can't relate. There may well be an art to letting go and you're as likely as not to discover it amidst the very warm, affectionate, nurturing and humane humour that resides in the heart of Rachel Collis.
Collis' own website is eloquent on the subject of her. I suspect it's written by her, as it's characterised by an all-too-similar acerbity. 'Rachel’s songs are original, surprising, heartily funny and iconoclastically earnest. Hear her sing a story with a twist of lemon, plenty of laughter, and a rare kind of convincing hope.' Hear, hear!
Sydney Fringe presents
The Art of Letting Go
By Rachel Collis
Venue: King Street Theatre, Newtown
Dates: 7 - 8 September, 2012
More Info: 2012.sydneyfringe.com