sat 03/12/2022

Meow Meow's Souvenir, Brighton Festival review – subversive but evocative new song-cycle | reviews, news & interviews

Meow Meow's Souvenir, Brighton Festival review – subversive but evocative new song-cycle

Meow Meow's Souvenir, Brighton Festival review – subversive but evocative new song-cycle

Post-modern cabaret star plays mischief with the ghosts of Brighton’s historic Theatre Royal

Meow Meow performs at Brighton's Theatre Royal

Dream palace, cesspit and church; celebrated, mopped (by Marlene Dietrich, no less) and fucked: Brighton’s Theatre Royal has seen a whole lot of history, of both the splendid and the seedy variety. Now it has found a magnificent if unlikely mouthpiece in the form of post-modern cabaret star Meow Meow.

In the opening moments of her new song-cycle, inspired by the theatre’s half-remembered and misreported past, she clambers through the stalls trailing yards of historical costume, retrieves a page of script from her cleavage, and pinches an EXIT sign to use in the absence of stage lights.

With “Brrrr-Exit” just around the corner, Meow Meow invites us to suspend time in a faded regency venue that has withstood floods and fire, the threat of Napoleon and – although she doesn’t say as much – the modern day buy-out by commercial operators ATG. At times of transience and threat we need theatres: places to dream, to commune, to remember our cultural ghosts.

'Did anyone bring any atmosphere?' she asks, before producing a handheld smoke machine

Souvenir is a one-off collaboration with American songwriter and composer Jherek Bishchoff, whose 2016 album Cistern involved improvising in an empty underground water tank. His music for Souvenir – a strange and beautiful mix of Weimar pomp, deconstructed chamber pop and foreboding synth-based minimalism – sounds dramatically and sometimes eerily alive on the Theatre Royal’s unlit and undressed stage. Bischoff conducts an eight-piece orchestra dressed like a marching band with red-circled cheeks. They look blankly back at Meow Meow when she’s struggling, but glorify her voice with glittering strings when she soars.

The creation of Australian-born artist Melissa Madden Gray, Meow Meow has always walked a tightrope between fabulousness and failure. For every grand metaphor there’s a dropped line, for every commanding note there’s an anxious aside to the audience. Tonight, her figure-squeezing silver dress is the epitome of feminine glamour, while her black wig looks as though it’s been dragged through a hedge sideways. Meow Meow is the embodiment of the saying "the show must go on" – even when your heel is stuck in your frilly red bikini bottoms and both the cigarettes in your right hand have gone out. “Did anyone bring any atmosphere?” she asks, before producing a handheld smoke machine. Its sorry little puffs enshroud her melodramatic torch songs in pathos.

Fantastical, and at moments very funny, Souvenir comprises nine songs that are equal halves genuine historical research and Meow Meow’s wayward and sentimentally overactive imagination. The show is also, in part, a send-up of the trend for ponderous site-responsive work. There is an impressive operatic tribute to Sarah Bernhardt, who may or may not have injured her knee here when someone forgot to put out the mattress for the parapet leap in Tosca. The additional songwriting talents of August von Trapp (great-grandchild of Captain and Maria) enhance a sweeping number about the workhouse children who benefited from free performances in the 1880s. Meow Meow commandeers a chorus line of local schoolchildren for the purpose, but ends up getting them to hold the screen and fold the lingerie during a moment of “contractual burlesque”. She frequently moves herself to distraction with her image of “The Wet Boy”, the ghost of a young stagehand who (may or may not have) died in the orchestra pit during a flood.

It’s no doubt deliberate that Souvenir’s showstopping number is its most thematically tenuous. The ill-fated Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin, may (or may not have) lived just around the corner from the theatre. Amidst tinkling bells and shivering strings, Meow Meow imagines the boat sticking fast in the ice on New Year’s Day – and the Victorian explorers, who had naturally come armed with playscripts and costumes, performing an impromptu harlequinade on the ice. As she sings, a white sail is slowly hoisted behind her. It is tangled with fairylights, and what appear to be her discarded undergarments. The Theatre Royal’s regular audience, faithful but traditional-minded, might have benefited from a programme that more fully anticipated and spelled out the artistic logic at play here. There were several elderly voices expressing thematic bafflement (“but didn’t she have a lovely voice…”) in the toilet queue.

I would love to see the full Brighton Festival wallet thrown at Souvenir: a dramaturg to help shape the research, more time for the creators to have explored and inhabited the space, and a set of songs that comprehensively embraced the Theatre Royal’s fascinating history. But not at the expense of this existing show – a thing of peculiar beauty whose fleeting and fragmented presence somehow leaves you feeling all the more possessed. For all its subversive spirit, the show’s creators seem truly in thrall to the Theatre Royal, with its hemp rope flies and its ceiling cherubs, and all the long-faded stars who’ve passed across its stage. “That’s lovely,” coos Meow Meow, as she exits, to the still tinkling pianist. And it really is.

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