Led and created by the extremely compelling Oh, Charlotte (Charlotte Kerr), Avant-Guarded is a soft, humorous and sympathetic show. Its attention to mood, its playfulness and the strong musical talent it showcases deliver the audience a kind of shimmering delight.
Avant-Guarded excels in involving the audience in a dreamy, slightly surreal mood. Lulled by the soft-voiced Kerr into a pleasant, luke-warm state of awareness, one begins more and more to accept the dalliances into fancy and absurdity that interrupt like bursts of spray the liquid flow of the piece. Shifting between instance, character, instruments and lighting states, the piece requires the audience to have a kind of soft engagement with what is being presented.
Drawing on Kerr’s experiences as an artist and a member of Gen Y, the show humorously unpacks the confusion, the melancholy, the heartbreak, and the strange joy that attend the quarter life crises experienced by those in Gen Y who are currently in their mid to late 20s. The comedy is playful and self-referential, with a dark and engaging silliness that leaves the audience laughing with recognition.
However, despite the quirkiness suggested by the show’s promotion, Avant-Guarded is surprisingly humble and relatable. While the promised fantasy, abstracted nightmares and dancing ducks are all present, these elements are not as central to the piece as might have been expected, but rather help form a comically bizarre background texture to a piece of work that is essentially human and romantic.
Throughout, Oh, Charlotte is a joy to watch. Her stage manner has a lovely sincerity that is as simple as it is captivating. From the beginning of the show, the audience is on her side, laughing with her and sympathising with the plights she details. Watching her interact with the strangeness of the staged world with such an unforced innocence has a reassuring quality that balances the bawdy absurdity of much of the show. This tension between her sweet and understated manner and the almost crude ridiculousness of the parts portrayed by Tamara Issa and Hannah Lang is a strange kind of alchemy. It both takes a simple, meandering tale of successive love affairs and dissolves its conventionality into uncanniness, and transmutes a gaudy, caricature of a show into something softly enchanting.
The songs woven through the piece lend their own magic to the performance. The music shifts between comic and heartfelt, showcasing the vocal nimbleness and skill of Oh, Charlotte. With a musical style somewhat reminiscent of Regina Spektor or Kate Nash, her renditions of songs by Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel and Joni Mitchell among others have enthralling spiritedness to them. Her voice is beautiful – unwaveringly polished without sounding artificial – and plays between a wistful gentleness and affecting power. Tim Solly, Issa and Lang slip in and out of the musical numbers adding the value of their own musical skill and humour to the pieces.
While amusingly outlandish, the piece could be strengthened however with more attention to narrative and purpose. The emotional arc of the show at times lacks narrative connection, with the celebratory note of the final song feeling unsubstantiated, and the looseness of images and ideas presented, though contributing to the surreal, abstract mood, leaving an impression that lacks a certain note of satisfaction.
Avant-Guarded’s beauty thus lies in the mood created through the combination of the relaxed with the unexpected and in the delight experienced in watching Oh, Charlotte sing.