For a cabaret artiste called Meow Meow, this is a performer who has always seemed more of a bird than a cat. She is flighty, constantly startled, her feathers always a little ruffled. The thrill of watching her in full flight — and it is indeed a thrilling spectacle — comes from knowing that she could easily careen head-first into the ground.
The tale of the Little Match Girl gives Meow the precipice from which to leap. She takes Hans Christian Andersen’s Christmas story of the small girl trying to sell matches in the winter streets and loosely hangs her show on this sad tale.
It’s a simple story and the metaphor works. In the fairy tale, the young girl dies alone in the street because no one reaches out to help her; in this show Meow demands, often forcefully, the audience’s assistance. She will not go into the darkness without desperately trying to use every means at her disposal in engaging the audience’s help to keep her show airborne.
In cabaret, audience interaction can easily be a crutch for a performer to gain control of the stage by humiliating unsuspecting and unwilling members of the crowd. Although Meow uses the audience in Little Match Girl, utilising dozens of people in her attempts to keep her show going, she is not in the business of putting them down. The difference is important: it is Meow who places herself as the butt of each joke and the audience member is always cast as the good Samaritan who saves Meow from potential disaster. Her barbs point inwards, and the audience is always protected and respected.
If Meow Meow is the little match girl and the audience the passers-by in the street, the songs themselves are her matches, spluttering into life before going out, often too soon. It’s nothing if not an eclectic selection, traversing Cole Porter to Laurie Anderson, Richard Wagner to Megan Washington, with some Noël Coward thrown in for good measure. We are allowed to experience the full spectrum of Meow’s vocal range as she mines the music for its joy and its sorrow.
On stage, Meow Meow is less a performer than a phenomenon. Under director Marion Potts’ assured eye, Meow demonstrates her array of talents as comedian, dancer, performance artist and diva. She is supported by the delightfully gifted Mitchell Butel as fan-boy and saviour, who effortlessly matches Meow in wild-eyed commitment. Butel’s version of The Book of Love by The Magnetic Fields is a highlight.
Versatile music director Iain Grandage also serves as composer, arranger and co-writer with Meow of a handful of original numbers. Grandage leads a tight band (Stephen Fitzgerald, Benjamin Hauptmann and Xani Kolac) seamlessly through the diverse musical genres.
Stemming from an act Meow devised for New York’s Joyce Theatre, the show has been beefed up into an 80-minute full-scale production. Playing in the Malthouse’s large Merlyn Theatre, this is a big show. With a giant thrust stage, elegantly designed by Anna Cordingley and lit by Paul Jackson, complete with a revolve and a grand chandelier, Meow has a vast canvas to work upon.
When the show travels north for an already sold-out Sydney Festival season, somehow the production needs to fit into The Famous Spiegeltent. In this more cosy venue, one can only imagine how Meow might blow the roof off the tent. For within the slick spectacle of this theatre production, some of the dangerously sharp edges of her previous outings have been smoothed over, and the audience, although lapping up the sense of danger, may find it hard to truly believe that the show will self-combust as it veers towards chaos.
At its heart, Little Match Girl is a magical and tender tribute to the creation of art and its place in a cruel and unforgiving world. Meow reveals the pain beneath the frivolity of her act and reaches out to take hold of her audience, dragging them into her mixed-up and confused world. Her voice manages to knock both your socks off and then, in an instant, hold you close and whisper lullabies in your ear.
With Little Match Girl, Meow Meow has created a show that allows her to take flight, swoop perilously close to the earth and then fly straight into the sun, exploding into a fireball of sequins and snowflakes.
The details: Meow Meow’s Little Match Girl plays the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until December 4. Tickets on the company website. The Sydney Festival season is at The Famous Spiegeltent from January 5-9 — join the waitlist for tickets.