Matthew Mitcham, the Australian diver who won an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008 at the age of 20, is charming. You want to wrap him up in a great big hug and take him home to meet your mum. But damn if his life hasn’t been dramatic. His cabaret, Twists and Turns, is aptly named.
Based on Mitcham’s autobiography of the same name, Twists and Turns was commissioned for the 2014 Melbourne Cabaret Festival. This three-show return season was a perfect fit with the 2015 Midsumma Festival.
Mitcham essentially tells the story of his life so far, punctuated by songs accompanied by himself on ukulele and his musical director, Jeremy Brennan, on piano and backing vocals.
Acclaimed New Zealand cabaret artist Spanky plays Mitcham’s alter ego as a playful, loving but occasionally sinister boy-dressed-as-a-girl. He leads our hero into some pretty dark and twisted situations full of self-doubt and self-destruction, including self-harm and serious drug use. The interplay between the two performers is one of the pleasures of the show.
Beginning with his childhood as a “dorky kid from Brisbane” with an alcoholic and unpredictable mother, young Matthew discovers the one sport he was good at: trampolining. Meanwhile, he tries to rid himself of “gay thoughts” by snapping a rubber band he kept around his wrist. Trampolining leads to diving and a stern, unforgiving coach. Fourteen-year-old Matthew wants to be perfect but can’t satisfy his coach, so he starts wiping himself out at weekends clubbing and taking drugs.
Finally he is suspended from diving. He takes off for Sydney and loses himself in the scene – but somehow meets and falls in love with Lachlan (they have now been together for eight years) and finds a sympathetic and nurturing new coach.
The moment of the Olympic gold medal dive is a highlight. Brennan acts as a commentator, then Mitcham, in his tiny swimming costume, approaches the end of the “board”. As he “dives”, the lights dim and dapple and we are in slow motion with the athlete as he goes under the water. He sings Kate Miller-Heidke’s lilting version of Nick Cave’s “Little Water Song” to Brennan’s rippling piano accompaniment. It’s simply spellbinding, and a most original and unexpected way of telling the most well-known part of his story.
After reaching the pinnacle, Mitcham again spirals into depression. He begins using crystal meth and hides it from everyone close to him. The most moving moment of the show comes as he finally reaches out to Lachlan for help and says goodbye to his alter ego forever. Full of emotion, he sings Rufus Wainwright’s triumphant “Go or Go Ahead”. I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member with tears in my eyes at this point.
Mitcham tells us he is an addict but one who is now clean, sober and happy. He and his mother are each other’s “recovery buddies” and he couldn’t be prouder of her, and of himself. He and his coach have just decided that they will go on and try for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Some might call this show self-indulgent – after all, it’s just another gay man telling us of his youthful struggles with his sexual identity and how he overcame it all. But to me this show is something very special. In our sport-obsessed nation, we hold elite athletes to the highest personal standards and elevate them to the status of heroes. They have worked hard and their lives are golden. They’re not supposed to be gay drug addicts who can sing really well and play the ukulele and make us laugh and cry by performing on a theatre stage. Mitcham has laid himself bare for us in this show, and I for one will be cheering him on in all his future endeavours.