Libby O’Donovan is the queen of contradiction – edgy yet sweet, intimate yet professional, calming and serene yet electric and full of humour – and Songs Only a Mother Could Love reflects that perfectly. After all, how often do you see a woman with a peroxide-blonde Mohawk grace the stage alongside two priests, who just happen to be her parents?
In her latest project, O’Donovan explores the relationship between mother and child with a collection of songs, mainly lullabies, that she associates with the ups and downs of being a parent. The show is a family affair in more ways than one, with O’Donovan inviting guest stars including her parents, her sister, and her partner, fellow cabaret artist Beccy Cole. The grungy-yet-inviting, intimate space at Fowlers is perfect for her musings on motherhood.
O’Donovan is clearly comfortable on the stage, whether she is sharing stories of sex education or singing the poignant, skilful melody she wrote for her daughter. Her voice is sultry and versatile, moving from fast-paced songs to lilting lullabies with ease, and her skill with reinvention and arrangement is clear with her unique renditions of hits and her original songs. Although anyone born after 1985 probably won’t be able to sing along with the classic set list (as Libby so sincerely urges them to do), the arrangements and performances, in addition to the rotating guest stars, are diverse enough to discount any uncertainty.
The guest artists, backup singers and band all contribute just the right amount to the performance; they are talented and eye-catching without taking away from what is, in essence, a solo show. The appearances of O’Donovan’s family make it clear that music was a constant presence in her household, with each family member producing unique, joyful sounds. O’Donovan’s community choir, Women with Latitude, provide two stirring songs, showing off their love of singing. Harmonies were not the tightest in their first piece, but their rendition of Billy Joel’s Lullaby dispelled any worries about musical quality with its tight pitch and dynamics. Although the band occasionally over-orchestrates, they are a cohesive and talented group, following Libby through every turn and unexpected improvisation.
The audience was truly captured by Libby’s performance, laughing at her anecdotes about her screaming child in Officeworks and crying at her heartfelt original songs written for her mother and daughter. Honest without being trite and funny without being crass, the show is perfectly in balance. Although the show, at 75 minutes, is on the upper-end of the duration for a traditional cabaret, the audience left wishing there was another 75 minutes to go.