Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, Sydney Festival season

Alan Cumming has the ineffable quality of a star. There’s that flashing smile, sliding from cheeky to rueful within seconds. There’s the twinkled eyes, the hair, the pixie-ish demeanour. He’s magnetic and it burns somewhere from the inside; somewhere one can’t quite place but will readily believe in.

At 11:45pm on a Friday night in a Spiegeltent at Sydney Festival, Alan Cumming welcomed us to his show with Annie Lennox, Keane, and Miley Cyrus. This is Cumming’s version of “sappy songs,”the sort of loss-tinged love songs to broken things and fragile hope – with a dash of the audacity of self-belief. With a three-piece band led by Lance Horne, Cumming mined the song for fresh meaning while retaining their sense of fun.

Alan Cumming at Sydney Festival 2016. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Alan Cumming at Sydney Festival 2016. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Cumming has a perfectly fine voice – there’s charm to it, if not real depth, and he compensates for that lack of power with remarkable sensitivity of phrasing – but the songs are the afterthought to the sheer force of Cumming’s personality and seemed occasionally superfluous.

There’s no denying it. Alan Cumming the person is infinitely more interesting than Alan Cumming the singer, and as he darted from story to story, from John Tiffany to Liza Minelli to Cabaret and politics and the self-awareness of getting older, he wove magic. Even though these anecdotes were carefully calibrated and controlled – freeing without ever sounding careless – they still managed to summon up that certain something in the cabaret air, where it hung in the space above our heads for moments at a time before quietly slipping away.

Alan Cumming at Sydney Festival 2016. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Alan Cumming at Sydney Festival 2016. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Cummings made frequent reference to his memoir, Not My Father’s Son – a book borne from a violent childhood and old family secrets – and within that story, and the story of a tempestuous, short-lived relationship – and that Cumming, the one who offers himself to the audience as proof of life lived and loved felt, is the most captivating part of the performance.

The show isn’t especially neatly or evocatively constructed (it is loose and doesn’t really embrace the directive of the title, but also feels strangely restricted – contradictions that don’t make sense even now, when we’re safely beyond the witching hour), but when Cumming just talked to us in the dead of night in a giant tent, things felt right.

Maybe the sappy songs are necessary cases of cabaret prestidigitation – if we’re listening to Cumming gamely add the curlicues of his Scottish singing persona to Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry and laughing fondly, then no one is going to cry from these absorbingly sad, weary, and all too human hints of lived experience. Maybe the songs keep Alan Cumming safe as a ringmaster in his own circus, a little too elusive to be vulnerable.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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