Sunday, June 22, 2014

VANDEMONIAN LAGS Adelaide Cabaret Festival 18 June 2014

Festival Theatre
18 June 2014 (One night only)

Cabaret! The word conjures images of feather boas, cocktail glasses, slightly risqué content, Broadway and razzle dazzle. When looking through the Cabaret Festival guide this show, looked, well it didn't look very cabaret-ish. A collection of songs about petty criminals being transported to Tasmania as convicts in the 1800's? Sounds a bit...depressing. But wait a minute. These songs are written by former Weddings Parties Anything head honcho Mick Thomas and the cast includes Brian Nancurvis (Rockwiz), Darren Hanlon, Aussie blues legend Jeff Lang, You Am I front man Tim Rogers  and a stellar cast of other singers and musicians.

It is a half full Festival theatre this evening which is a damnable shame, because Vandemonian Lags is an amazing piece of work. Yes the content isn't always cheery (mostly un-cheery in actual fact), but all of the songs have incredible emotional impact. There is a connectivity, a sense of 'there but for the grace of God go I', a spirit of humanity and even hope, that is both melancholy and rare.

Nancurvis and Rogers mostly take roles as narrators in guises as upper class gentlemen or easily offended judges casting people to transportation to the colonies for stealing or larceny. Both are exceptional in these linking roles, and Rogers is such a natural in his various characterizations I wonder if we will be seeing him in Pirates of Penzance before too long. The 17 stories told see each 'convict' tell their sorry tale about how they come to being shipped off to Tasmania, considered the 'prison with no walls', or how they survived. Tales of love and loss, desperation, injustice and redemption. The songs range from sad laments, jaunty folk shanties to some rip roaring rock and roll.

Without going through each song and it's back story, they are mostly true stories and when the Lags was premiered in Tasmania last year, several descendants from the subjects of these songs were on hand to hear them. Favourites for me were the almost square dance jig of Martha Hayes, Van Diemans Land by Lang, and Jane Gilligan On The Town and an amazing The Book Thief. Special mention has to be made of Tim Rogers raucous take on a story of prostitutes being run out of the Launceston medical facility, the hilariously titled Sex Hospital. But the shining star in the programme is also the most hopeful story. After being transported for poaching and serving 20 years, Samuel tried his hand at prospecting and quickly hit it rich and returned to the UK bought the manner he formerly worked for and was reunited with his wife after two decades. The Wildest Dreams of Samuel is utterly beautiful, sad and glorious and the most hopeful tale in this programme. 

Mick Thomas has created a remarkable piece of work here. It is an powerful emotional journey, with fantastic songs and very strong performances. These are songs and performances that will have a resonance long after the curtain closes. I believe this to be a work that will have a long life and I can see it performed by an ever changing cast long into the future.

Ian Bell

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