The cat's meow meow

By Dionne Christian

In 29 years of interviewing performers, it rates as one of the most intriguing assignments: watch cabert performer Meow Meow's Little Mermaid, a "decidedly un-Disney cabaret" performed by a "post-postmodern diva," then interview the show star who won't break character.

It's fascinating from the get-go, when the director appears on a stage that looks like a magical fairyland of lights, bright colours and strange props, and warns the audience to be mindful of their safety.

"We'll stop the show if it becomes too dangerous."

Rather than Little Mermaid, it feels more like Alice Through the Looking Glass. Then the glamourpuss herself arrives: a buxom brunette - possibly - with the longest eyelashes I've ever seen and a voice so splendid, it knocks you back in your seat.

That's as dangerous as it gets for the audience who, apart from assisting during a crowd-surfing number, can revel in the chaotic wonderment of it all.

But it certainly doesn't seem safe for the energetic Meow Meow, who looks to have the dexterity and balance of a cat, which is especially useful when it comes to the crowd-surfing.

She first did it years ago because "I was in a concert hall in a ball dress and no one expects something that rock 'n' roll". TimeOut New York later dubbed her "the spectacular crowd-surfing queen of song" going on to say she has dragged cabaret "kicking and screaming" into the 21st century.

In Little Mermaid, she's a comedienne, making innuendo-packed proclamations with a straight face, then singing and dancing, throwing in cirque-burlesque acrobatics and crowd-surfing before confronting us, in a roundabout way, with some Serious musings about love, sex, sacrifice and happiness. It's funny and entertaining but also, without being at all preachy, considered and relevant.

It bubbled forth from the Hans Christian Andersen folk tale, more recently co-opted by Disney. Any similarity ends there as Meow Meow cavorts through a catalogue of songs and - allegedly - her own romantic disasters. Chris Ryan, who starred in the musical King Kong and has enough animal magnetism to keep pace with Meow Meow, plays the prince. And a plumber who tries to help Meow Meow sort out the troubles she's having with her pipes.

Post-show, we wind our way to the back of Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre and a modest dressing room where Meow Meow sits curled catlike on a make-up chair; jewels, cosmetics and detritus from the show spread out before her. She is understandably tired; to say her take on The Little Mermaid is energetic is understating things.

She might play the diva - a travelling showgirl with a suitcase always packed and ready to go - but she doesn't come across that way; she's amusing, generous with her time and thoughtful in the answers she provides about how and why the show came about.
"Ah, Little Mermaid - it's the issues it brings up, isn't it? Issues of perfect love and true love; it's essentially a story about a person with a voice that defines her but she gives it all up for... love? Would you really give up what defines you to have a relationship?

"In a climate where that's held up as the absolute ideal, especially for teenagers, I think we need to ask: 'do we really want people, especially young girls, to give up what makes them different to be the same in order to supposedly find true love?'"

Then Meow Meow's off, dissecting the imagery and symbolism in the Andersen stories to conclude it's all rather disturbing.

"I don't think there's one heroine left alive or intact!"

She doesn't like linear story-telling - "I like things to be a little bit oblique" - and enjoys exploring what perfection might mean and how we're all so keen to project our deepest desires on to romantic partners. That's got implications for the men, too. "The show is about bodies and love but I think men relate to it as much because it questions perceptions of manliness. I mean what does it mean to be a prince?"

Little Mermaid is the second Hans Christian Andersen story she's ripped apart. Four years ago, The Little Matchmaker got a dose of her post postmodern re-telling. After sell-out seasons in Australia, she took it to London and, later in 2012, claimed a Helpmann Australian Theatre Award for Best Cabaret performer.

Already the toast of London, she's continued to appear there as well as in the United States. She'll be back in Blighty later this year to play the fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, hand-picked by Shakespeare Globe's new artistic director, Emma Rice.

Rice told the Guardian newspaper: "She [Meow Meow] is literally a sensation. I have never met anybody like her. She somehow manages to be a theatrical equivalent of everywoman, she is super-glamorous, super-empathetic to the world and one of the funniest creatures you will ever meet."

I couldn't agree more, but just who is Meow Meow? She's not about to say because she doesn't like to ruin the allusion and spoil the mystique. When I ask about her childhood, she smiles and purrs the same line she uses with most journalists: "I was born on a Berlin bar at some date now lost in the martini mists of time."

I leave not even knowing what her real hair looks like under the bouffant black bob wig but I do know she protects her modesty during the crowd-surfing by wearing three pairs of tights and two pairs of knickers.

Of course, I google her later and discover Meow Meow is the stage name of Melissa Madden Gray, an Australian-born actress, dancer and cabaret performer with a welter of impressive qualifications.

According to the Australian, she did honours in fine arts, German and law and mixed "feminist and poststructuralist theory with human rights law" before training at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

The illusion isn't ruined - at least for me - at all. I'm doubly impressed at the way she's woven together such disparate interests to create a truly unique performance.

See Meow Meow say hello to Auckland at

The opening night show on Tuesday 8 March is sold out.


What: Meow Meow's Little Mermaid
Where & WhenSpiegeltent, NZ Herald Festival Garden; March 8 - 11, 7:30pm; March 12, 7 & 9:30pm and March 13, 7pm, Auckland Arts Festival.

- Weekend magazine

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