(pictured L-R: Kirsty Wigg, Nick Munday, Jesse Budel, Ryan O'Dea, Elja Parsons, Mitre Khammash)
Allegedly, the most universal phobia in our society today is performative social interaction — specifically, public speaking. Asking anyone so afflicted to give a speech or even make a toast will likely cause them to break out in a cold sweat (not to mention to refuse to do it). The aspect of this task that often seems to cause them the most visceral trauma, however, is when it's unscripted. Having to hold the attention of a room full of people while orating a stream-of-consciousness message is their nightmare fuel. Try to imagine, then, the kind of reception you'd get if you requested that they also sing.
It's important to keep this in the back of your mind when watching this team of young, fearless performers at work in Vicarious Cabaret, because not only are they improvising an entire 55-minute show, they also specifically relate it to a member of the audience using details of their life that they learn just moments before it begins. But that's not all. They also sing spontaneous songs to tie the unwritten story together, all the while trying to maintain a (somewhat) cohesive narrative arc, which means remembering everything everyone has said and sung, and processing (in real time) how to use that information again in a meaningful way.
Frankly, even to do this badly would be an admirable achievement in itself, but such a concession is not needed here. This troupe is to be commended for finding meaning amongst the chaos and providing an evening of uproariously funny mayhem that had absolutely no business being as entertaining as it was. (In lesser hands, a musical about the national political ramifications of a French teacher murdering zombie children would have just been so silly.) Not every beat lands, but given the bravery and common aspiration on display, they are well overshadowed by the beats that do.
For the most part, the team clearly understands and abides by the cardinal improvisation rule: "yes, and...". With such a nonsensical premise (completely different for every performance), it's a fine art keeping all the balls in the air while moving the story forward (not to mention including even a modicum of logic) with so many ideas being offered on the floor. When Parsons, Khammash, Wigg and O'Dea (Munday is not appearing this season) were uninhibited while lending an ear to their fellow performers, the comedy flowed easily. In particular, Parsons displayed a knack for malleability, always being subservient to the scene and generously offering herself on a plate. She was equally matched by Khammash, whose self-deprecation, variety of speech colour and effortless comedic concoction of suave boganism almost always landed a belly laugh.
Perhaps the most unassuming but quick-witted of the four, O'Dea's contribution was a selfless one, either laying the foundation for his co-actors to stand on (his christening of Khammash's Jumpy Jumpy Phillip is one for the ages) or slipping in a subtle one-liner that further established their ideas (shotguns truly are useful on yard duty). While Wigg was most visibly thrown by the unexpected, the success of the show had a lot to do with her intentional focus on story, ably adding spontaneous characters to make a link and willingly bursting into song at the drop of a hat once she sensed the dialogue had run its course.
It would, of course, not be much of a musical without music. Budel's unobtrusive and intelligent keyboard accompaniment gave the songs a degree of narrative and structural integrity — his nod to Satie was a delicious touch — as well as a number of moments of sensitive underscore. While some of his more sophisticated harmonic choices weren't always successfully navigated by the singers, Budel's aesthetic nous for music theatre paid dividends in bolstering the show's artistic merit above easily-predicted contemporary pop, which would have been all too easy. The show is better for his contribution in ways that might not be immediately obvious to every audience member, so allow me to confirm that it is.
It's likely that you're reading this too late to catch the Vicarious Cabaret team in action again in the 2022 Adelaide Fringe, but should they present a return season, make them a priority on your wish list. Hit or miss, this show is the definition of original, which, in an industry where 'derivative' and 'successful' are becoming conflated, is the highest praise I can muster.
Vicarious Cabaret is at the Adelaide Fringe Festival until Sunday 6 March.