Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Family drama at the heart of cabaret show

Robin Kelly (centre) is working alongside (clockwise from left) Tom Broome, Benjamin Henson and Cherie Moore to tell a story inspired by his grandmother, Valerie.
Robin Kelly (centre) is working alongside (clockwise from left) Tom Broome, Benjamin Henson and Cherie Moore to tell a story inspired by his grandmother, Valerie.

They were 19 when they met at a party thrown by the Melbourne bohemian set - there was a man there with live canaries living in his beard who thought he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ - and, in those heady 1950s days, they married, started a family and lived not so happily ever after.

Their names were Graeme, a jackaroo and horse trainer, and Valerie, who worked in textiles and fashion and, after they ran a restaurant together, became a clothes designer. In the early days when all was well, they had no idea what was hurtling toward them.

Then, in his 30s, Graeme got sick. He was declared to be a manic depressive and a paranoid schizophrenic, institutionalised and treated with electroconvulsive - shock - therapy. Valerie kept the family together, but it was a struggle. Once, when she confessed to Graeme's doctor, how much of a struggle it was, the doctor suggested she give ECT a go. Now aged in her 80s, there are still gaps in Valerie's memory as a result.

Their grandson is Robin Kelly, a molecular-biologist who quit his laboratory job to found Last Tapes Theatre Company and pursue his passion for music. Kelly figures he owes some of his creativity to his maternal grandparents, but he wonders what else he may have inherited especially from grandfather Graeme.

Honest enough to admit he experiences anxiety and depression, Kelly is nearing his 30s - the same age Graeme was when health issues disrupted his life.

"I've done a lot of genetics training so, of course, I've thought about what's inherited and what's passed on," he says. "I've thought about whether I'm a 'healthy individual' or, like Graeme, 'a diseased individual' and how those definitions are arrived at and who gets to decide.

"We have such a limited understanding of how those conditions work, how to treat them - whether they even need treatment - and what it means for our relationship with reality.

I've been thinking about those things for a couple of years, especially as I get older and start to think about having children of my own and what I might pass on..."

So, with his wife and creative collaborator Cherie Moore and close friends Tom Broome and Benjamin Henson, he's made Valerie, a piece of cabaret theatre that explores family mythologies and tries to catch a glimpse of the future. All are well established in their respective fields: Moore and Henson in theatre while Broome is one of Auckland's most sought-after drummer/producers and a heavyweight in the funk and soul scene.

They've been working on the show, juggling it with other projects, for a couple of years and, last year, performed at the Australian Cabaret Showcase competition. After that, Kelly decided to shake things up a bit so it was less like a play-with-songs. He decided to write, for the first time, his own songs; Kate Prior worked as a dramaturg to help them figure out a few ideas and Henson came on board as director. Henson and Kelly have joined forces for other shows.

"It was really important I had someone directing that I felt 'safe' with because I had already established a working relationship with them," says Kelly, adding that Henson reminds him of Valerie. "A little bit of me knows he would really love my grandmother because he would find her to be a fascinating and wonderful woman."

Henson gets the chance to find out when Valerie arrives to see the show next week.

"I think it's unique to have a cabaret show that opens up a conversation about mental illness and even more unique to have it made by someone who is an artist and a scientist and can marry these two aspects together," he says. "It's also real life and real life always trumps fiction."

What: Auckland International Cabaret Season - Valerie
Where & when: Basement Theatre, September 27 - October 8

- NZ Herald

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