Women in Voice 15

(Playhouse Theatre)


Presented by QPAC in conjunction with the Queensland Folk Federation and Annie Peterson

Professional production

What a truly great evening, what a swellegant elegant party it was. Women in Voice 15 has come a long way since the Sitting Duck Café, calling in on the way to the Rialto in West End and the Princess, and now comfortably belting it out for the past five years at QPAC, where it’s jointly sponsored in conjunction with the Queensland Folk Federation and Annie Peterson, and with a nod, I’m sure, to the Woodford Folk Festival along the way. In its early days WIV had a slightly more butch audience, but in the conventional surroundings of the Playhouse the audience was more mixed, more like that for k.d. lang and Tony Bennett perhaps, but much less restrained. They whooped and clapped and participated in the party with huge enthusiasm. All the singers travel widely throughout Australia and internationally, but WIV itself has only travelled once interstate, in 2005 to Sydney for a two-week season at Star City.

So this particular party is just ours, girls, with the sassiest MC you could wish for. Carita Farrer bounced her way on to the stage in slinky bright orange (her pumpkin dress) with a floor-length feather boa in hot pink spiced with multicoloured highlights and an absurd delight of a headpiece looking like the waving antennae of a many-headed bumblebee. Her version of “Step inside now” with a lascivious high kick at each repetition of the title line encouraged us all to join her in her comic Lesbos, a little bit Dame Edna, a little bit Sandra Bernhardt. As she teetered over to her drinks table, we knew we were in for a wild night, but were coyly encouraged not to “peak too early.” Good advice too, because the fun was spread out throughout the evening, a bit of karaoke with Ralph from the audience, almost a game of twister except that there’d been a health and safety issue the previous night when part of a shoe intruded rather too intimately into someone’s orifice, charades, and the perfect party hostess offerings of burnt curry puffs, bratwurst and cheese on toothpicks stuck in a pineapple, and, finally, ice creams. The front rows all scored. As for Carita, she was on not one but two diets she didn’t get enough food on one.

Each singer creates her own party piece, but they all step in as backing singers, so it really does seem like a big communal songfest. Some have props or a bit of a light show, others just sing, and what voices — blues, jazz, folk, pop, enormous variety, power and beauty, and a great line in comedy. Stacey Broughton’s very funny laments about waiting in her ’50s black corselette, red tiered hooped petticoat and fluffy mules for the phone call from Mr Right who might just be James Bond is set in a wonderful 50s lounge room with wing armchairs, red feature phone and incongruous New Guinea phallic carving. A chi-chi-girl-style “Busy Line” later and she resorts to the comfort of her heart-shaped box of chocolates until she hears at last from JB himself who leaves his number, belted out by the back-ups, “6345-789.” A quick change into green taffeta with red belt and high platforms, and she’s off to tell him where to put his sweet lips.

Emma Dean, by contrast, just sits at the piano. She’s no bland Diana Krall though, singing old standards. She sings mostly her own songs and looks like a princess in white silk with a tumble of blonde curls cascading down her back, but she’s also raw with a great sense of irony and can morph in a second as she sings songs based on her princess diary into all the nasty little girls at school who are also doing ballet. And when she also plays jazz violin like Stéphane Grappelli and acoustic guitar, the audience is taken on a pretty wild ride.

Kristina Olsen is an American singer songwriter who has been coming back regularly to Australia over the past several years since her first visit here for the inaugural Woodford Folk Festival in 1994. Once again we’re in crossover territory a great voice which is both folk and country, jazz and blues and with a fine line in political jokes between songs. She has some great plaintive riffs on the acoustic guitar as well. Two of the long narrative songs were standouts: the one about the woman who finally learns to fly, and the very funny “Better than TV,” a sort of theme song which she wrote for the TV-free America movement. All you need are flatmates like hers who are unusually three-dimensional in their vigorous sexploits. She obviously relished the quirky resonance of the Australian term for an apartment dweller. Kristina Olsen, by the way, is a WIV virgin this year, as our MC delighted in telling us. Let’s hope she’s back again next year.

Megan Sarmardin is the youngest in the party, but she takes command of the stage as if her mother gave birth in the wings. She’s certainly been singing on stage for a long time up in Mt Isa, and she was in Australian Idol this year. They can’t have known what hit them. Some of her songs are ones she’s written in conjunction with one of the superb musicians behind all the women who is also her mentor, John Rodgers, and are based on her family’s stories of their indigenous-Russian-Indonesian heritage. One in particular about fleeing from the authorities and hiding the children is like a great hymn about any and every history of colonial injustice. After showing some slides of herself as a young child in Mt Isa, she belted out the Tina Turner hit “River deep, Mountain high” as it was her Dad’s favourite song. What a talent!

Leah Cotterell is a WIV veteran: her first appearance on a raised dais with dry ice swirling round her feet and dressed like a Celtic priestess emphasised that authority as her voice soared in a strange song about being lost in the dark, which she and Jamie Clark, the guitarist, had created for all the ghosts in the old schoolhouse in Running Creek Road. After this the wonderful depth and range of her voice was given full rein in four very different songs from the 60s, possibly the most powerful being the Ewan MacColl classic “Ballad of Accounting” with the growling alto repetition of “from the cradle to the grave.” The lilting joy of “Dirty old river” by Ray Davies, founder member of the Kinks, with its Zen-like anthem of “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I’m in paradise” finished this segment, and I wondered could anything top it.

How about a bit of surreal madness with Christine Johnston, one of the Kransky sisters, then? On a high screen we see a strange little cartoon story of a generic insect grasshopper, cicada, flying cockroach? who bumbles into people and is caught up on an old lady who brushes her off so that she falls into a cone of ice cream. To the tune of “Greensleeves”, the light goes up on the stage where a large cone of ice cream is surrounding the insect, who is sweetly singing, yet looking like an escapee from the Munster family. As she escapes from her chrysalis of ice cream, she becomes more and more psychotic, her singing reaching heights and depths of anguish, as she tears her hair from her head. “Baby, it’s you,” she shrieks as she pulls bits of her dress off. Then suddenly it’s back to “Greensleeves” as she becomes Christine the Strawberry Girl, but now she’s a turtle. “Stop bugging me” she says. What a weird and crazy journey she takes you on, but what an astonishing imagination and voice to accompany it.

I’ve mentioned the musicians in passing, but I’d like to shower on them all the hyperbole I can muster. John Parker on drums; the wonderful John Rodgers on violin, keyboard, guitar (and was there a lute at one stage?); Stephen Russell on piano; Jamie Clark on guitar. Some of them have been with WIV many times, and there’s a pretty special synergy on stage that’s built up over time.

It was one a helluva party.

Directed and choreographed by Karen Crone

Playing until 25 November at 7.30pm

Duration : 2½ hours (including 20-minute interval)

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Fri 17th November 2006)