***** STARS
By Laura Hartnell
Meow Meow is late to her own show. As the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra launch into her introduction music, her pianist announces her to us twice, and the conductor looks around uncertain. The pianist hasn’t seen her. The first chair shrugs. The audience looks up and down the aisles. She finally appears in the dress circle, lost and flustered, but ready to abseil down to the stalls using stockings tied together that she keeps on her at all times in case of emergency. When she eventually makes it onto the stage (no abseiling required) she delivers two hours of stellar kamikaze cabaret that is as hilariously absurd as it is deeply moving.

Meow Meow’s Pandemonium has been touring for years. She has performed with the London Philharmonic, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra among others. Now she takes centre stage with the MSO after “the bottom fell out of producers’ market” and COVID destroyed her plans to open a show on Broadway. “So, instead of Broadway…I’m… here,” she teases, blank-faced and disbelieving. But one is simply flooded with gratitude that the pandemic brought her back to Australia to gift us once again with her musical talents, electrifying stage presence and dramaturgical genius.

Meow Meow makes art out of carefully orchestrated accidents. True to form, the first act of Pandemonium is utter chaos. Unequipped men are dragged up from the audience to fill in for dancers who are still caught in quarantine; lighting cues are missed and costume changes are botched. She stops songs halfway through, complains about having to do everything herself, and seems more than a little disappointed in us as an audience. “Did anyone bring any atmosphere?” she remarks, peering out at us, her eyes glittering with mischief and secret appreciation. Her setlist ranges from Weinmar classics through to Radiohead. A bastardised and subversively hilarious rendition of Ne Me Quitte Pas and searing cover of Brecht and Weill’s Surabaya Johnny are highlights of the first act, which is doused with uproarious comedy and ends with Meow Meow crowdsurfing the subscribers’ section of the stalls.

But beneath the bedlam, Meow Meow has constructed a show of utter generosity that reminds us what it is to be alive. The chaos of the first act is distilled into a quieter and more reflective second act (though there is still a hilarious version of Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, which she sings in French, German, Mandarin, and ‘avant garde’). She is an artist of fierce intelligence, and her masterful ability to pair misfit humour with heart-in-your-mouth emotion has always been at the core of her work. Her original songs written with the likes of Megan Washington, Thomas M. Lauderdale of Pink Martini, and long-time collaborator Iain Grandage showcase just how far her talents go, and her astounding cover of Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees offers the most heartbreaking reflection on just how much this world “wears us out,” particularly in the last year.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra do an always-fabulous job and add a wonderful energy to Meow Meow’s “fully orchestrated chaos.” In particular, conductor Benjamin Northey performs his role as part maestro, part stage manager, part friend to Meow Meow with aplomb.

Meow Meow is nothing short of a theatrical genius. Her ability to juxtapose the hilarious with the heartbreaking, kitsch with earnestness, and distilled beauty with utter chaos is miraculous and life-giving. You should never miss a chance to see this wonderful performer.