“It pushed the boundaries a bit too far.”
I heard someone in the audience say this when the show finished. Yasmin Mole and the cast of Little V’s Terrible Tea Party would probably take this as a compliment, considering the show’s heavy reliance on offensive and shocking humour. Jokes about suicide via ketamine overdoses sung by a very depressed puppet who also claimed his cousin kissed him (while he was asleep) don’t really sit comfortably within PC boundaries. Neither do songs claiming you’re “never fully dressed without your hymen” or off-hand references to ISIS and anal beads. When it comes to cabaret though, is criticism about going “too far” relevant at all?
European cabaret was first performed in the 16th century. Contemporary cabaret as we understand began to take form in the 1800s. Patrons would sit at small tables in dimly lit nightclubs, while lavish performances on stage encouraged the audience to drink and sing along. It abolishes typical theatre etiquette and instead opts for an uninhibited good time.
Many of these performances were satirical of the government and figures in high society. A famous cabaret venue in France called Le Caveau was closed in 1816 because for mocking the government. The performance medium really exploded after the First World War, with the overthrow of the Kaiser and a whole new social-democratic government. For the Europeans, opportunities for entertaining cabaret presented themselves when the political climate was in tumult.
American cabaret began in New York and Chicago in the early 1900s. It was more glamourous and less socially critical. This kind of cabaret was about late nights and would encourage patrons to forget about the constraints of work and family life. The idea was to get drunk and indulge in your weirdest fantasies. Cabaret for Americans was like a performance of the unconscious, becoming the inspiration for gothic-sexual shows like the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Elizabeth Millington’s Terrible Tea Party leans more towards the latter. It’s set up as a tea party hosted by Virginia (Yasmin Mole), rasping out an American accent that sounds like a mashup of Fran Drescher imitating Patty and Selma, if she grew up simultaneously in New York and Boston. Virginia is accompanied by her three assistants, clad in pin-stripe pants, sickly-white makeup and bright red lips. There’s also the bald, white puppet, voiced by David John Watton and there’s Bruce, a transgender singer with the head of a puppet and the body of Paul Moder wearing a tutu, while third assistant Charlotte Righetti takes care of the vocals.
Tea Party brings to the stage a motley crew of talented performers, but the directionless script meanders for 50 minutes, while the nasty jokes go for controversy without much humour. As an art form cabaret is designed to be risqué and controversial (that’s why it’s on so late at night) but there needs to be a point to the satire and fun. Mole and co. make light of rape, suicide, drug addiction and murder, but they don’t show us why. These subjects are tossed about as if they’re simply gunning for cheap laughs. Lines like “raping your grandmother and stealing her cat” are amusing for their shock value but they feel empty without any meaningful context. What are we supposed to feel when Virginia brutally stabs the puppet for interrupting her show too many times? With whom are we supposed to connect? If these skits are supposed to make light of serious subjects and satirise political correctness, then why do they instead feel bitter and mean-spirited?
It’s a shame the humour is as banal as a bad Adam Sandler movie, because the cast are certainly talented. Mole has a beautiful voice when she sings (showcased in a ukulele duet) while the three ghoulish assistants demonstrate great physical comedy, whether brawling together or squabbling to meet Virginia’s every nasally-bellowed demand. One song about what it “feels like to die” is a fine example of the macabre black humour boasted by the show’s program. Other sight gags really hit the mark when they’re not tastelessly lampooning rape or mental health issues. There’s a truly golden moment when an unkempt Santa Claus figure bashes open the outside door and slumbers in. His crack showing above his pants and his slovenly gait suggests he’s pretty hammered. He drags a sack along the ground, in which we can see a squirming body and hear vague whimpers. Santa walks past the audience and down the aisle and disappears through another door, at which point the show resumes as though nothing had happened. Jokes like these were poking fun at the show’s universe and they were charming and original.
Tania Tobiano’s production design is rich and detailed. The aesthetic suggests a tumble down the wrong rabbit-hole into a bizarro-Wonderland, where all the tea cups are broken, the animals are dead and stuffed and the music is eerie. Lighting switches between soft pinks and cold blues, giving a surreal glow over the setting.
Pushing boundaries is clearly the intention of a cabaret performance. It’s what makes a late night out with drinks and on-stage entertainment such fun. But if these boundaries are pushed without any point to the satire, then the play has no lasting effect. It winds up feeling like an insult to the audience’s intelligence.
Little V’s Terrible Tea Party is a visually superb mish-mash of skits, half of which could have ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a show that boasts a light approach to serious subjects, but ends up as a serious miss-fire that’s pretty light on the humour.