The Auckland Performing Arts Centre
December 12-20 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

THE FIRST THING you should know about The Sexy Recession Cabaret is that it’s potluck. Along with items from the core cast, a rotating list of guests (some very recognizable) means there are new surprises every night. According the programme notes, the Depression-styled show aims to “be relevant to how we are living now and how we are dealing with our own recession”. It’s a big theme that doesn’t quite deliver, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

The performance begins at the door, with a woman in a very long red dress calling gentle hellos from the roof and various unusual characters roaming the foyer in disheveled furs. The theme of faded glamour is carried through to the disguise of the TAPAC auditorium. The versatile venue has been transformed into (yes) a cabaret space, complete with black draped tables, gilded mirrors and waiters wriggling their way between chairs to take orders for wine and platters.

The lush catering by Garnet Station could well have induced guilt among those truly enduring a recession, but added considerably to the ebullience of the opening-night crowd. During the course of the evening we were encouraged to bond with our tablemates by means of noisemakers, a quiz with performers as prizes, and (for some) naughty telephone calls, broadcast to the whole room. And thus the mood for the evening was set.

Director Eve Gordon is becoming something of an auteur, with past projects such as Burlesque as You Like it, Fete Macabre and the recent physical theatre collaboration Ooh Baby Baby reflecting her love of the quirky and surprising mixed (usually) with a dose of risqué. The Sexy Recession Cabaret comes from the same fertile territory, and also carries Gordon’s trademark collaborations with artists across many different genres.

Performers emerged in surprising spaces through the night, popping through walls, from behind curtains as well as onto the catwalk-like front stage and the two smaller side stages. On the opening night acts ranged from vaudeville song-and-dance numbers, to tap dance, circus, burlesque and a strangely beautiful combination of film screening and a drag act, which (intentionally) showcased the beautiful body of Mike Edwards. And the live band led by local legend Karen Hunter was both professional and in-character.

There are minor quibbles. Some acts, such as By a Waterfall by Sarah Houbolt (involving a bikini and a power grinder), were too brief but delightful in a left-of-field way. Others, such as the wheelchair karaoke, were far too long and clumsily unentertaining. Several seemed unfinished and deserving of further exploration. The majority of acts however were both quirky and generous, qualities reflecting a show which raises funds for TAPAC to continue its innovative performing arts programs. It was heartening to see some young performers, including circus aerial artists and musicians, included in the lineup.

Tama Waipara proved an affable MC, although his down-to-earth Kiwi humour seemed out of place in the show, with the other performers all sticking to the 1920s Depression theme. I think this may be why the transitions were a little clunky, although it may also be because technically The Sexy Recession Cabaret is a very complex show. The backstage crew deserve some recognition for so unobtrusively managing this. And no doubt the show will tighten as the season goes on.

Is it sexy? Indeed. Brassieres and bustiers (and their removal) abound, and for those concerned about equal opportunity, there’s glimpses of male flesh as well. But I digress. Sex is not the point here, nor is complaining about the recession.

The Sexy Recession Cabaret is a warm escape pod for a couple of hours from the increasingly plastic Christmas ‘spirit’ at this time of year. Although I’m not sure that the show necessarily succeeds in pushing us to reexamine our behavior in these times, perhaps its real message is that a bunch of talented people pooling their energies can create something quirky, real and simply generous.