Salacious London-based duo East End Cabaret, starring Bernadette Byrne (played by Jennifer Byrne) and Victor Victoria (played Victoria Falconer-Pritchard), is up there with the crème-de-la-crème of musical acts at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Featuring a cavalcade of raunchy songs with names like It Was Still Hard and Danger Wank, it’s clear early in the show that nothing is off limits for these two gifted and irreverent performers.
Byrne is lead vocalist and Victor Victoria, a hermaphrodite sporting a smashing half man/half woman costume, plays a range of instruments (and vocals) including accordion, violin, piano and kazoo. Featuring the kind of audience interaction destined to give male participants night tremors for decades, the show is a riot – a sort of high-powered feminine Flight of the Conchords with the smut cranked up to 11. As the end of their Melbourne season approaches (show details can be found here) I interviewed the prurient pair about the sub-textual meaning of Danger Wank, confronting conservative crowds and playing in venues such as converted toilets and railway tunnels.
Bernadette, word around town (read: Wikipedia) is that you are a European chanteuse of mysterious origin. Could you disclose any morsels of your past that might provide some clues as to the mystery of your origins?
Bernadette: Darling, I always think that where you are going is more interesting than where you have come from. But I will tell you this – Victy and I were actually born in the same town. I have been trying to get rid of her since I could walk!
Victor Victoria: I would try and clarify the whereabouts of our hometown for you, but last time I gave out a hint, Bernadette broke my little toe with her stiletto heel. Her air of feminine mystique is difficult to penetrate.
Victor Victoria, which do you find more annoying: shaving one leg, or shaving half your face? And what issues do you find most pressing for hermaphrodites in contemporary society?
Victor Victoria: Luckily for me, my lady-side is practically hairless, save my luscious head of hair. An inheritance from a fortunate bloodline, I think. And my man-side sports quite a natty half-moustache, which does take some styling – but the result is absolutely worth the effort. I do have to sew my own clothes though; there is a distinct lack of half-man, half-woman apparel on the Sportsgirl rails.
What are the creative impulses that led you to write the song Danger Wank, and what on a sub-textual level is the song about?
Bernadette: It all started about a year ago when Victy started to bring a large coat with her every time we got on the bus. When she finally told me what she was doing I was shocked, until one day I felt the urge. It was brilliant. Utterly liberating. I suppose that is the subtext – forget about what people might think and embrace your own sexuality.
Victor Victoria: Exactly! And we are not the only ones embracing our own sexuality, as it were. The phenomenon can be found all over the world, from Berlin to Brunswick Street, wherever a person experiments with the thrill of autoeroticism coupled with the threat of being caught out.
When and where did you two first meet, and how did East End Cabaret originate? Whose idea was it to form the show and how did you begin formulating material?
Victor Victoria: As you already know, we did indeed grow up together. Bernadette left at age 17 to begin a gap year in Europe that has never really ended. I began studying music at the Conservatorium in Paris, hoping that she would one day stumble back into my life. Which she did, drink in hand, straight into the dive bar that had employed me as an accordionist (to serenade romantic drunkards).
Bernadette: Then we decided to move to the East End of London. We found ourselves a bedsit and a crate of gin, and started writing songs late into the night. Of course, the words of these songs were inspired by the various and interesting experiences that I have previously had –
Victor Victoria: — and the music depended on which instrument I felt like playing at that moment.
Bernadette: We started to perform our songs at the infamous George Tavern, and the cabaret was born.
What is the most unusual venue you have performed at? What happened?
Victor Victoria: We’ve performed in converted toilets, railway tunnels, caravans, festival tents, deconsecrated churches and ex-Embassy buildings. We’ve entertained audiences from the darkest cabaret bars to the crème-de-la-crème of private members clubs. But I’d say one of the most unexpected moments of a performance was an audience interaction that became far too interactive, and ended up with a participant actually unzipping their fly and “displaying their wares”. In other words, there was penis on the stage, a place where that penis had no business in being.
Bernadette: The most disconcerting part was that neither Victy nor I actually noticed that it was happening at the time. It must have been quite unremarkable.
During the song It Was Still Hard, a man behind me said “that’s messed up” then took another swig of his beer. Have you ever created a song, or half created a song, you subsequently deemed too raunchy to perform?
Bernadette: We did write a song entitled Don’t Get Raped, which was a comprehensive guide on how to avoid rape using the ‘stop, drop and roll’ method. The song came from thoughts that I would have walking home alone late at night – what would I actually do in such a hideous situation? I don’t know about too raunchy, but perhaps too confronting for some.
Your show is riddled with irreverence and weird pillow talk. Have you ever found yourself performing in front of an audience member(s) who objected to the material? Perhaps walked out?
Victor Victoria: We were once booked for a charity dinner – which in itself was quite lovely. However, just minutes before we were due to perform, the organiser pointed out that the front centre table was made up of a bishop, priests, nuns and the editor of the Parish newsletter.
Bernadette: The church group did not appreciate the risqué nature of our material at the beginning, though they managed to stay until the end of the set! Otherwise, the only person to have ever walked out of a show was chanting ‘dangerwank! dangerwank!’ at the time, so I don’t think it was a bad thing. I believe we may have encouraged them into action!
How has the show been received so far in Melbourne and how do local audiences differ to European audiences?
Bernadette: We have had wonderful audiences here in Melbourne so far. So many beautiful people.
Victor Victoria: So many beautiful people that seem to enjoy your company a bit too much …
Bernadette: You’re just jealous, Victy. The main difference that I have found is that Australian audiences seem more easily shocked than European audiences, but they do embrace being shocked. I like that.
Victor Victoria: I think that Melbourne audiences would generally welcome a challenge, a bit of provocation in their entertainment choice. Our style of cabaret is more dark and dirty comedy than musical theatre, which will hopefully entice more people into trying something different – to indulge, just for a while, in some playful perversity.
East End Cabaret is on every Friday from March 30 to April 13 at Red Bennies.