Christmas, Limelight

Melbourne Recital Centre
December 16, 2017

There was definite promise of a naughty kind of nice about this Christmas cabaret show. Strange Bedfellows, the cabaret side project of opera singers Kanen Breen and Jacqui Dark, has a reputation for bawdy, irreverent entertainment, and the Melbourne Recital Centre’s intimate Salon was set up cabaret-style – including a bar should anyone become parched during the hour-long performance. It’s a thirsty time of year.

Kanen Breen, Jacqui DarkKanen Breen and Jacqui Dark. Photograph: supplied

Just in case anyone had missed the naughty memo, Prancer & Vixen charged out of the stables with the C-word. Several times, in fact, as Bedfellows musical director and piano accompanist Daryl Wallis, dressed in jeans, tawdry reindeer Tshirt and elf-eared Santa hat, sang Don’t be a c*** this Christmas. Breen and Dark then appeared in revealing, artfully dishevelled costumes of black fishnets, corsets and lace with touches of colourful Christmas glitter, topped off with plush reindeer: the front half of the beast, strapped to their torsos. This goofy addition was probably surplus to requirements, as Breen and Dark clearly personified Prancer and Vixen.

The duo proceeded to turn jolly ideas about Santa and his elves and reindeer upside down, by radically changing the lyrics to popular Christmas songs. Rudolph the brown-nose reindeer lifted the lid on what’s really going on up in the North Pole, while Breen’s solo (with beer in hand) turned Walking in a Winter Wonderland into a queer reindeer tryst involving walking round in women’s underwear – a performance highlight of smooth tenor and camp showmanship. Dark’s solo, which turned a Kurt Weill song into a dark lament about Santa the sexual predator, revealed her mighty mezzo and put the audience just a little on edge – this proved to be a show not entirely about giggles.

The Christmas casino lullaby was a clever medley of songs, such as the Coventry Carol, that made disturbing fun of parents leaving children in the car while gambling. Another duet late in the show turned the 12 days of Christmas into a survey of sinister Yuletide traditions and contemporary socio-political woes, concluding with a poignant meditation on Manus Island’s refugees. Breen and Dark sang a Middle Eastern lament with cold, echoing mike effects – another, very different kind of highlight delivered with sincere emotion (Prancer & Vixen proceeds are being donated for refugee aid).

The pair bounced off each other beautifully, and made the audience feel in good company (even during some brief audience participation). The original, cheeky lyrics worked well with the often familiar tunes, and their fearless, free-wheeling patter between songs kept the show rolling along. Just how much was improvised is uncertain. Breen confessed to having run out of things to say at one point, but easily carried it off with an audience that lapped up the Bedfellows’ mad, sassy shtick. Soon after, as he slipped away before Dark’s solo, Breen quipped to Wallis: “Seamless!” How many other big laughs were off the cuff?

Commissioned by the Recital Centre, Prancer & Vixen was limited to three shows over 24 hours. One hopes it returns in some form next year, because the Bedfellows’ naughtiness, inventiveness, talent and heart is the perfect antidote when Christmas becomes too nice to bear.