The Auckland Live International Cabaret Season kicked off this past week with Valerie, an unconventional cabaret written and performed by Last Tapes Theatre Company. The piece first appeared at Hotspot Cabaret and has developed into an entirely different creature since then.
The Basement Theatre space has been transformed into a loungey cabaret den, lit by candles and kept on the darker side of moody. The onstage band consists of two of Last Tapes founding members Robin Kelly and Cherie Moore, respectively on keys and vocals, then Tom Broome on drums.
Valerie is a biographical cabaret that deconstructs itself into a deeply personal unraveling of Kelly’s inner thoughts. We watch as Kelly battles his own rationalisation of hereditary mental illness through the story of his grandmother, Valerie. As the details of Valerie’s struggle with her husband Graeme, a sufferer of both bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, are revealed through monologues performed by the enchanting Moore, Kelly parallels his own life, relationship with Moore, and deepest fears. Kelly also attempts to educate the audience with clinical information regarding the link between DNA and mental illness, however, the cast continually attempt to sabotage and interrupt Kelly in a strong directional choice.
Director Ben Henson, with dramaturgical input from Kate Prior, adds both intelligent and metaphorical direction to Valerie, allowing the story to cut through the strong musical performances and resonate long after you leave the theatre. Henson has a knack of creating poignant images that encapsulate the essence of the play flawlessly.
The soundtrack is stunningly evocative and impressively all original work. The songs ooze with emotion and passion both in their performance and construction. All three members of the band are absurdly talented and never miss a single beat. Paul McLaney does a wonderful job of musical dramaturgy.
All the elements come together and create an intimate yet confronting experience that leaves room for necessary deep reflection after seeing this piece. The daring nature and bravery of Kelly in exploring his past and present is both endearing and deeply saddening to watch, however, Moore is always nearby reminding us that love, support and whanau are key for anyone tackling mental illness.
With Mental Health Awareness week just around the corner, Kelly’s story reminds us of the importance of understanding mental health and its effect on ourselves and the world around us. New Zealand is still highly ranked amongst world countries for our rate of suicide and in recent surveys it was discovered that mental disorders are the third-leading cause of health loss for New Zealanders at 11.1%, behind only cancers (17.5%) and vascular and blood disorders (17.5%). However, every day those 11.1% are continually given misinformation, rarely taken seriously and are even discriminated against in the workplace. As an unseen illness mental health is often disregarded as a serious and legitimate concern. Kelly’s story reiterates that long before we had a handle on the depth and breadth of the situation, mental illness took root in families, destroying them from the inside and out.
The performance offers a cathartic ending, giving Kelly the opportunity to vulnerably open himself up to the audience and his bandmates. As he speaks you can feel the solidarity of everyone in the room who listen to every word with patience and care, urging him to find his solace, his happiness and resolution. This story of a woman, and her grandson, and all the family in between, becomes a representation of all who have suffered or will suffer from mental illness. It is a beacon and lesson for our future. A challenging, innovative and beautiful piece of work.
Valerie plays at The Basement as part of the Auckland Live International Cabaret Festival until 8 October. Details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe