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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Catherine Campbell, Lecturer, Performing Arts, UniSA Creative, University of South Australia

Kyham Ross/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Now in its 24th year, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s annual celebration of all things cabaret sparkles and shines, blazing a joyous and slightly scintillating trail through the wintry Adelaide nights.

Under the artistic direction of Virginia Gay, there is a lot to love about this program.

I have long said cabaret is a magpie artform: its artistic boundaries are flexible and it collects other performance forms within its “storytelling through song” bower. Seated at round cabaret tables, you could be sitting next to anyone.

This connection, this sense of being part of it all, runs deep through this year’s festival.

Many standout highlights

Gillian Cosgriff’s Actually, Good embodies cabaret at its best. A deftly woven and immaculately paced story, this show is a full-throttle, cartwheeling glorious ode to the power of death to make us focus on life in this moment.

Cosgriff makes space for the audience to construct a unique-to-tonight list of likes. We delight, as she does, in the diverse, off-beat, wacky and poignant responses.

Cosgriff is one of Australia’s most exciting musical comedy songwriters and performers. Her lightning-quick thinking and generosity of spirit to the audience, combined with gorgeous original songs made me want to see it all again, and bring all of my friends to share it with.

Gillian Cosgriff’s Actually, Good embodies cabaret at its best.
Claudio Raschella/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Fascinating Aida are the masters and creators of this style of witty, close-harmony, take-no-prisoners, sharp British comedy – and they, as they say in the classics, have “still got it” after 40 years. I first saw them perform in 1998. It was the show that made me desperately want to do whatever this thing called cabaret was. Seeing them again all these years later was a near-religious experience.

They deftly skewer a rich array of socio-political golden idols and the audience cheer, laugh and hoot: from I’m Getting It, to Lieder (with the original Weimar choreography, including Dillie Keane’s piano stool acrobatics) and a “medley of their greatest hit”, Cheap Flights.

Fascinating Aida have been the queens of cabaret for four decades.
Kyham Ross/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Keane, and her richly acerbic tenor voice, is the queen of the comedy song alone at the piano. A highlight was Adèle’s Story, a song they wrote about Adèle Anderson’s journey as a trans woman. At that 1998 performance, Adèle’s story was something many knew but no one was speaking about; in 2024, her song creates a crystalline moment. I, along with many in the audience, was in tears.

Any festival worth its salt rides the boundaries of its art form. The immersive New Zealand theatre group A Slightly Isolated Dog’s slick, alive, delightful immersive telling of Jekyll & Hyde does that with glorious anarchic panache.

The five actors as outrageous French café staff move through the audience, swapping between stylised comic responses to repeated words, encouraging the audience to respond with them, improvised reactions, and seemingly effortless segues into close harmony versions of contemporary pop songs.

A Slightly Isolated Dog’s immersive retelling of Jekyll & Hyde is slick, alive and delightful.
Kyham Ross/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Audience members are co-opted as characters in the story, often physically, to great comic effect. A top hat and black fright wig are shared among the actors to delineate the titular characters.

This is sheer theatrical enjoyment in the tradition of European cabarets.

From the personal to the political

Every now and then you are in the audience for a show where true magic happens. This was Indigenous singer Jess Hitchcock in A Fine Romance.

Hitchcock overcame vocal illness to wrap the full house in her sparkling, seemingly effortless voice. She draws from a wide range of music from her albums Bloodline and Unbreakable, weaving stories in and around them.

Jess Hitchcock holds the audience in the palm of her hand.
Claudio Raschella/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

She holds the audience in the palm of her hand, and shared tales of her life, from growing up in the classical music world, to discovering singing, and working with Archie Roach, Kate Miller-Heidke, Paul Kelly and Tina Arena.

Her gentle and forthright engagement with the audience made this a very special evening.

Michelle Pearson’s Skinny dives into the world of female body image and her own debilitating story of weight loss surgery.

The audience are with her every step of the way: laughing at her uproariously funny depiction of sex-with-the-light-on, and furious at the profits made by the weight loss industry.

Michelle Pearson’s Skinny is a deeply personal story.
Claudio Raschella/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

She uses her singing voice sparingly in the first half. It is only once she rejects societal and gendered body expectations that she begins to sing out, her extraordinary voice equally at home in pop ballads, music theatre and rock belts.

It is a highly comic, starkly honest and powerful story, and the anticipated ending of making peace with her own body comes via an unexpected declaration for her young son, wanting him to grow up in a world where he doesn’t have to feel that “different” is “less”.

The comedic and the sublime

Flo & Joan’s Now Playing gives an initial impression of a low-fi style of comedy satire, but the opening does not prepare you at all for the hilarious, sharply witty lyrics, combined with effortlessly precise harmonies and keyboard/track/percussion.

Flo (Nicola) on keys and Joan (Rosie) on vocals and percussion deftly and self-effacingly skewer their millennial “spinster sister” lives: life-changing haircuts, after-work drinking binges and English folk songs. They create ridiculously good comedy from a goose-riding witch porcelain statue – Bat Out Of Hell will never be the same again. My face hurt from laughing.

My face hurt from laughing at Flo & Joan.
Claudio Raschella/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

The improv show Musical Bang Bang may have had cabaret purists railing, but the audiences enjoyed seeing the impressive improvisation skills from the team, including former artistic director Julia Zemiro.

With the multi-talented Victoria Falconer at the piano, the audience shouts suggestions for the topic for the musical (my night: child beauty pageants) and the group of six actors create the songs and scenes and storyline along impro rules with a cabaret flourish: laughter and ridiculousness reign.

Musical Bang Bang improvises a new show every night.
Claudio Raschella/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Gen Z musical comedy stars Mel & Sam open their show singing about finding ships “hot” and sexy, to an audience noticeably younger than usual cabaret festival audiences. Their writing is slick, riotously poetic and pulls no punches. From dance-style bangers to ballads, they are always on point, and refuse to take themselves more seriously than they have to.

Closing the festival, Lisa Simone is an absolute powerhouse of energy with a stunning voice of enormous range and dexterity. Her show, Keeper Of The Flame, a tribute to her mother, Nina Simone, is an extraordinary evening.

Nina Simone was to headline the very first cabaret festival but had to withdraw due to illness. Listening to Lisa pay tribute to her legacy through a beautifully chosen selection of favourite and less well-known Nina Simone songs, and some of her own, was a full circle moment.

Lisa Simone’s tribute to her mother, Nina Simone, is an extraordinary evening.
Claudio Raschella/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Lisa Simone’s voice effortlessly moves from jazz breathy ballad singing, to bell notes, to full belt Tina Turner-style: there is nothing this amazing woman can’t sing. Musical punch and delight came from the big band of 16 Australian musicians, 13 from Adelaide, and the finale sees her walking out into the crowd, across the back row of the stalls and back down to the stage, greeting and dancing with everyone on the aisles.

Her encore had the whole theatre singing Feeling Good, a stunning moment in a show that honoured her mother’s legacy and showcased her own remarkable talents.

Making a community

Cabaret festival audiences long for connection and sense of community. They have seen and felt how cabaret brings audiences and artists together.

Virginia Gay was the embodiment of this embrace. She was seemingly everywhere, from talking to audiences in the foyer, to duetting with New York’s cabaret doyenne Mark Nadler, to improv musicals in Musical Bang Bang, to the lineup in Comedians Auditioning for Musicals.

Virginia Gay, right, was the embodiment of the community of cabaret.
Claudio Raschella/Adelaide Cabaret Festival

She was the last of the incredible array of guests for the free piano bar with the extraordinary vocal and musical skills of Dr Trevor Jones. Indeed, the community of audience and performers in the piano bar each night with Jones is the beating heart of this festival.

Catherine Campbell was a last-minute guest artist for Mark Nadler’s Hootenanny as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

ref. Adelaide Cabaret Festival understands how its audiences long for connection and community –