While her mid-concert pronouncement, “Old Age. F**k it!” made it crystal clear that she has no imminent retirement plans, Robyn Archer is nevertheless a grand dame of cabaret and the Australian arts scene. After ascending the musical theatre summit with her shows A Star is Torn and A Pack of Women in London’s West End, and becoming a master of Weimar era repertoire by the likes of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, Archer branched out into festival curation to great success. She remains a vital part of our cabaret scene and a stellar example of how to create shows around important themes.
Robyn Archer. Photograph © Claudio Raschella
Archer’s regular cabaret festival collaborators have been musical director Michael Morley and accordionist George Butrumlis. However, in an ironic topsy-turvy development given the show’s preoccupation with these uncertain times, Archer brought in local accordionist Gareth Chin when it appeared that COVID might strand Butrumlis in Melbourne only to have to improvise further when Butrumlis got to Adelaide. Then Morley was struck down with flu. Fortunately, Chin plays the piano and the show went on and indeed the chemistry was so strong that no one would have noticed.
Mother Courage was the focus of the early stages of the show with the familiar Alabama Song from Brecht/Weill’s opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny followed ingeniously by the rarely heard WC Fields classic The Fatal Glass of Beer and Archer’s original Whiskey is the Devil. The terrain became darker with Brel’s early Le Diable (Ça Va) (also a hit for Juliette Greco), Léo Ferré’s ballad of a sexual predator Monsieur William (light years away from Serge Gainsbourg’s pop version to which I’m more accustomed) and How Strenuous it must be to be Evil from Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook, all of which suited Archer’s powerful earthy register. Less successful were the romantic interludes such as Handel’s Lascia la Spina, the evergreen Plaisir D’Amour and the Elizabethan Orlando Gibbons’ The Silver Swan where Archer’s thinning upper register did not allow her the purity of tone required.
Thematically and musically, the second half of the show built beautifully. After waving goodbye to love with her own country original An Insect on the Windscreen of My Heart where Archer reminded us that she is still a skilful exponent of the endangered art of yodelling, epic events became the focus with Leadbelly’s The Titanic, and another Archer original about the 1975 Dismissal.
Woven together with regular excerpts of Brecht verse, the show became uncomfortably prescient with The Stock Exchange Song and Archer’s reminding that pandemics are usually followed by depressions (Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?, One Meat Ball) and Weill’s brutally cynical What Keeps Mankind Alive? followed by Noël Coward’s equally cynical companion There Are Bad Time Just Around the Corner.
Frank Loesser’s Boys in the Back Room (immortalised by Marlene Dietrich) may have been a lighter conclusion, but there was no shying away from the warning that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Musically satisfying, conceptually brilliant!