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Meow Meow

Review: Both riotously funny and achingly true, Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born confirms Meow Meow as one of the world’s finest cabaret artists

From The Saturday Paper

By Alison Croggon

There was a point about midway through Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born when I realised, almost with a jolt, how lucky I was to be there. How lucky I am to be alive at this time to watch Meow Meow – “a showgirl”, as she tells us many times, “of gargantuan proportions” – at the height of her powers, performing her bittersweet enchantments live on stage.

Meow Meow, the alter ego of performer Melissa Madden Gray, is one of the superlative cabaret stars of our era, the 21st-century equivalent of a Marlene Dietrich or Josephine Baker. No correspondence will be entered into. But here I’m only agreeing with David Bowie, Pina Bausch, Mikhail Baryshnikov and countless artistic directors of major venues around the world, who have all curated her solo shows.

Meow Meow is very good indeed. And Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born, which is maybe my favourite so far of her several spectacles, showcases admirably all the things she’s good at. Originally commissioned by London’s Southbank Centre, it’s arrived (a month early, as our diva sardonically observes) to be the Malthouse Theatre’s Christmas show.

All this is worked through the brittle-tough persona of Meow Meow, a reconstruction of the cliché of the tempestuous diva fallen on hard times. She is a consummate tease, singing a verse of a song – I think we get a single line of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, one of her standards – and then breaking off into a divagation about something else. Almost the entire show is about what doesn’t happen. But in the end we still get the music: songs from Brecht, Weill, Sufjan Stevens, Patty Griffin, Nick Cave, Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well as originals by Meow Meow and her various collaborators.

What holds all this chaos together is that glorious cabaret voice with its seductively smoky purity, and the supremely assured skill of Meow Meow’s presence, which means she’s riveting when she’s simply dragging a prop across the stage. Plus she’s hilarious, even – or maybe especially – when she’s stealing coats and expensive handbags from her audience. It’s always a little perilous being near Meow Meow: nobody is safe.

This show is haunted by childhood; the children on stage prompt vagrant memories of Meow Meow’s own childhood and, in one of the most moving moments, her childlessness. Directed by Michael Kantor, who directed her previous shows Vamp and Little Mermaid, Apocalypse Meow has a beautifully modulated dramaturgy, moving seamlessly through its essential anarchy to moments of emotional catharsis and theatrical magic that, in lesser hands, could be shoddily sentimental.

There’s a seam of pain that underlies the whole, and this brings all the show’s nonsense, playfulness and – yes – beauty into the real. Meow Meow is, par excellence, the muse of catastrophe: she is, after all, the contemporary inheritor of the Weimar Kabarett, and – as anyone who’s seen her sing them will know – one of the foremost contemporary interpreters of Brecht’s and Weill’s songs. Her practice, which creates the show before our eyes, its fictions transparently concocted and dismantled from one moment to the next, is deeply Brechtian.

Read the full review.