Photo – John McRae
Watching Matthew Mitcham bare his soul – and finely toned torso – in this cheeky-yet-serious musical rendition of his life is a little like watching a new reality show, Celebrity Cabaret; the performance might not be as slick as one from a troupe of VCA graduates with years of training, but it’s remarkably good from an elite athlete whose life has been spent honing a completely different set of skills.
For most mortals, 26 is a little young to be labelled a “legend” – or to be awarded an OAM, for that matter – yet Olympic diver Mitcham has achieved both.
And now he’s a cabaret star, too.
The “legend” status was achieved when he pulled off a breathtaking final dive in the 10m platform contest to earn perfect 10s from four judges – the only diver in Olympic history to achieve this. Oh, yes, and then there’s the small matter of that gold medal win – Australia’s first male diving Olympic gold since 1924.
His life is littered with equally impressive championship wins and over-achievements – he can quote encyclopaedias and speaks several languages – but the pathos in Mitcham’s tale stems from the lack of self-confidence that has plagued much of his life, leading to battles with depression and self-doubt, drug abuse, panic attacks and self-harm.
The teenage partying years can be partly explained as part of the rite of passage that so many young Australians go through – even straight ones who were popular as kids and weren’t raised by alcoholic single mums with a short temper – but even after Mitcham’s Beijing win he was still ranked No. 2 in the world, and he turned to methamphetamine use to dull the pain of imperfection.
“Maybe they will accept me as I am if I’m perfect,” he sings.
It beggars belief that someone exuding such talent and charm can suffer such anxiety under his cheerful surface, but it is this knife edge that we are allowed to watch him walk that adds poignancy in places where there is risk of bathos. That and the reminder that this is real – not a telling of some fictional life or memoir after the fact – this is fresh, raw and potentially ongoing, despite his success with Narcotics Anonymous and solid eight-year relationship with his partner, Lachlan Fletcher.
And he doesn’t hold back from sharing this pain; there are moments in some of his more heartfelt songs when it appears this fragile soul will finally crack.
In others, such as when he describes the joy of being Chief of Parade for the 2009 Sydney Mardi Gras, it seems his heart will burst with pride.
Balancing the torment are some fine moments of musical theatre and even a soupçon on circus skills, as he describes his first love – the trampoline – and performs a short routine. But even here the reminder of Who This Really Is hits home; when Mitcham momentarily misses a beat and bounces unexpectantly off the trampoline and off-stage, there is an audible ripple of shock through the sold-out theatre; after all, this tousle-haired youngster has more at stake than just a few shows for Melbourne’s Cabaret Festival – in less than a month he will be leading Australia’s diving team at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
The high musical standard is aided and abetted by such talent as UK-based artist Spanky (Rhys Morgan), who co-wrote the script and provides harmonies as well as playing the role of his evil conscience (I think; it’s a bit confusing in places). Jeremy Brennan (Jersey Boys) provides excellent accompaniment on piano, vocals and some narrative. The whole show was commissioned and produced by the Cabaret Fest team of Neville Sice and David Read, who spotted his potential when he MCd an event last year.
But it is obvious that Mitcham is more than comfortable being the star of the show and, despite some initial nerves, he is a born performer who soon has the audience eating out of his hand. He also has a fine voice and displays his talent – and early influences – on what has become his trademark ukelele.
It’s a riveting tale told by a complex but utterly charming character and his innate talent suggests the start of a second career for Mitcham. If you miss the show, grab the book and Watch This Space.
Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2014
Matthew Mitcham’s Twists and Turns
Director Nigel Turner-Carroll
Venue: Chapel Off Chapel | 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran Vic
Dates: 20 – 22 Jun 2014
Tickets: $45 – $42
Bookings: (03) 8290 7000 | www.melbournecabaret.com