Victor Victoria and Bernadette Byrne in East End Cabaret | Red Bennies

In Melbourne, freshly minted with plaudits from the Adelaide Fringe Festival, including a gong for Best Cabaret, salacious musical duo East End Cabaret arrive to deflower four shows worth of local audiences with 45 minutes of lascivious comedy. Bernadette Byrne (Jennifer Byrne) and Victor Victoria (Victoria Falconer-Pritchard) deliver a high-powered feminine Flight of the Conchords dipped in acid, drenched in smut and strutted onto the stage in a riotously raunchy revue where everything sexually taboo is on the table, or taking its clothes off ‘round back.

Flying in from the freshly deflowered streets of London after popping their cherries at Edinburgh Fringe last August, East End Cabaret actually stem from somewhere else, a dimly lit corner of an anachronistic sister universe in which lacy underwear and arsenic humour copulate with no protection — a faux Euro where Radiohead covers and contemporary remixes sleep in the same soiled bed as Byrne and Falconer-Pritchard’s perversely atavistic cabaret reinventions.

The tall, dark, gothic, Morticia Adams-esque Bernadette is “a European chanteuse of mysterious origin”, so the official word tells us, while Victor Victoria epitomises the show’s twisted elegance. Inspired by Polish Austrian Josephine Joseph, who appeared in Tod Browning’s cult classic film Freaks (1932) and claimed to be a true hermaphrodite, her costume is split down the middle: half shoulder-less dress, blue eye shadow and frilly brown hair; half black pant(s), white shirt and the thin curly moustache and soul patch of a cartoon French waiter.

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Bernadette booms the ferociously funny It Was Still Hard — about a man with an unconquerable erection — into the mic with 10 gallon gin bottles of oomph, while the revelatory Victor Victoria accompanies with support vocals and music (she plays accordion, violin, piano and fluorescent green kazoo) and chimes in with gags and repartee, a touch of Kafka-Shaffer to Bernie’s bird-like Letterman, which is broadly the formula they work with. As the story recounted how the man’s appetite could not be killed by porn, gerbils, kicking and slapping etcetera, a bloke near me at the bar spluttered “that’s messed up” and took another gulp of his beer. V V slowed the tempo down for the sweet I’m Just a Jealous Guy and the show ends with the aptly titled Danger Wank, not before a few other zesty routines.

The two scenery chewing provocateurs bring the kind of audience interaction that gives people tremors of stage fright for decades. They theatrically molester male audience volunteers, make them wear clothes, do pantomime, mimicry, get them to hold mics, read lines — a trippy high-powered feminist revenge set to music.

There’s no talking down the twisted talents of these two incorrigible creations. The worst, most grating part of watching and listening to East End Cabaret is hearing the announcement that the show is nearly over, three quarters of an hour whisked away at the blink of a stink eye. An encore could have served them well.

I should add that just before I exited Chapel Street’s Red Bennies venue, smile stretching ear to ear, something very bizarre transpired — an interaction that eradicated that smile from my face and caused me to walk to the train station under a grey cloud of confusion until, Met ticket in hand, I finally came to terms with what had occurred. A haggardly woman with skin colour that melted into the walls behind her — a sort of nightclub chameleon from a universe of hip Stephen King books — confronted me. One wrinkled hand clutching my right arm, she said “THE FIRST LETTER IN EVERY FOURTH WORD” and before I could respond she moved back a metre or two and disappeared into the crowd.

After I passed through the train station turnstiles a long forgotten memory zapped into my mind like a clap of thunder, and suddenly I made sense of it all. I remembered when I was a child on a Sunday day trip to a cut-rate circus in a far eastern Melbourne suburb. My brother and sister went on the jumping castle and I walked off, munching on a candy apple, to a small tent where a cardboard sign stuck to a violin bow protruding from the dirt outside announced in thick purple letters: “FORTUNE TELLER”. I don’t remember everything the wretched woman inside, shrouded in shadows, told me, but I remember the end of it.

“One day in your early 30s,” she said, “you will encounter a tall woman dressed in black who will visit from a far away land. A ping pong ball will fall out of her. You will be immediately spellbound by her companion, and she will be both man and woman. You will pass onto this person a message from me, which you will display in a public forum. One day you will be told how the message can be understood.”

When I asked what message, she said “this one” and handed me a folded, scrunched-up piece of paper. As I walked towards the exit she chuckled to herself, a deep, cancerous rumble. When I glanced back I thought I saw a thin curly moustache on one side of her face.

For years I forgot about the message, but I can now reveal that the text below was written in code. To understand it, take “the first letter in every fourth word”, just like the old lady said, beginning at the first. IE the first word, then the 5th, the 9th, the 13th, the 17th and so forth. So the first letter would be “i”, the second “f”, the third “y”, etc.

I have never had friends who like bright yellow more than portland orange. I have never understood why some people hate paintings of red apples when they don’t very well understand why everything always has a time and a place where even simple things objectify. I had a friend who never even ate anything without first creating a story to exemplify the good things. She felt needed to turn the world completely helter shelter into an extremely entertaining place of fun and frothy tales. If I had some valeric acid there wouldn’t even be an issue. Of course not many colours reflect anything with lascivious thoughts, which are open for interpretation. Sometimes crazy people stab and kill the dreams we shoulder throughout our lives. Have we no purpose? Are we all like dumb beasts living on offal and never ever without a diet of idiocy way, way too salacious to even keep spinning a gossip wheel? The way forward might involve a sense of lewdness too weird to live with. We never alter the prison state beneath and around us. If I figure out the path, I won’t cheat again. Not before hormone replacement therapy.

The details: East End Cabaret plays Red Rennies in South Yarra on March 30, April 6 and April 13 as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Luke Buckmaster also reviews films on Crikey film blog Cinetology.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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