More Than A Boy
Brisbane Powerhouse with Two&Co
Brisbane Powerhouse Turbine Studio
November 24 – 27 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Brisbane’s darling, Tom Oliver, in his fearless debut cabaret directed by David Bell, shares an epic family story, told to him countless times by his mother. We know it’s often the true stories that make the best cabaret shows. We also know cabaret is a genre we grow into, and it’s not for everyone. But Tom Oliver is made for cabaret and he comes of age in More Than A Boy.
The 60-minute show feels like it’s got some settling to do and this will happen over time. Comprising a surprisingly eclectic mix of musical numbers, it’s a treat to hear original songs penned by Oliver, Andrew McNaughton and Wes Carr, alongside a few reimagined gems, each neatly placed to punctuate or advance the true tale of a young Croatian who flees a terror stricken Yugoslavia. Have you ever even heard Where Do I Go performed away from a production of Hair? Oliver sings this with the candour and longing of a refugee prepared to flee one life and cross unknown territory to find another, in this case in New Zealand. We go on a long, strange sea journey (More Than A Boy and McNaughton’s The Search and Tears in My Throat) before the shock and surprise of the clever, comical Swear Song, which reminds me of Briony Kimmings’ The Fanny Song.
The title track is a standout, a stunning songwriting achievement for McNaughton and for Oliver a terrific showcase. Could it be Oliver’s next new release? It’s a chair turner. It belongs on an EP with Carr’s Hey Brother and the sure-hit These Are the Times. Will somebody make that happen?
I sort of want the start of the show to let us know more clearly where we are headed – on one level we need earlier, clearer contextualisation – but then it’s such a lovely not-really-a-surprise-at-all to learn by the end of the journey that everything Oliver’s shared is about a family member and probably actually really happened that way.
Oliver succeeds in juxtaposing You’ve Got a Friend in Me (Toy Story) against I Won’t Grow Up (Peter Pan / American Idiot) followed by Queen’s Under Pressure and The Beatles’ beautiful Blackbird, and these are the transitions that will need to be a little smoother in the next incarnation of the show. Very smooth – we knew it would be – is Sondheim’s There Are Giants In the Sky (Into the Woods) and the deceptively gentle opening number Nature Boy cut short to good effect. These early numbers and later, literally shifting gears once more, a lilting Every Now and Then (Thirsty Merc), as well as a New Zealand accent and a gorgeous Colin Farrell/Colin Fassnidge winking Irish brogue, spot on, are delivered in Oliver’s signature style, his vocal work strong and sweet. He’s a young, wide-eyed sage, wisdom beyond this lifetime locked away behind a baby face, and able to bring out a powerful rock persona when things need to be taken up a notch.
But a one-man show is never simply that. Beneath the melody of many of the musical numbers, Oliver’s three-piece band offers a subversive late-night/all-night underground jazz vibe. At times this threatens to fray a song’s narrative thread but the essence remains, like messing with the Christmas Pudding. Everyone can see something funky has happened in the kitchen – perhaps the chef has enjoyed more brandy than the batter – and the flavour and foodie photos will be just as satisfying, of course, but it’s not what Mum used to make. This is both shocking and refreshing, a proper cabaret shake up in terms of what we’ve seen recently jumping from the bandwagon. Oliver tells me the sure, solid sound comes from the musicians having worked together before. And with just one rehearsal for this Brisbane Powerhouse Wonderland season, the result is impressive.
More Than a Boy will undoubtedly tour and deservedly so. It’s a highly engaging all-new-ancient universal coming-of-age tale. One of our most versatile and adaptable and adorable performers, Oliver genuinely connects with his audience, gives us his all and leaves us wanting more, much more.
If you missed it this time, look out for More Than A Boy’s return season somewhere, sometime…