Review: Tom Sharah in That 90’s Show – Hayes Cabaret Festival

If you’re going to spend an hour or so with someone, there aren’t many better choices than Tom Sharah. With a strong sense of ease on stage that borders on casual and conversational – it’s like you’re chatting to him in a lounge room and he’s just telling an enjoyable, particularly long story – Sharah is a natural at cabaret, and a perfect fit for the Hayes Cabaret Festival.

Tom Sharah in That 90’s Show is Sharah’s love letter to the music of his formative years through childhood and beyond. 90’s pop is almost at the point where it’s cool to admit that you like it and listened to it (and still listen to it), Sharah says, especially as the 2014 Top 40 fare is something much more homogeneous and less fulfilling than the 90’s, with its high-pop/grunge/adult-contemporary mixtape vibe.

Tom Sharah in That 90's Show.
Tom Sharah in That 90’s Show.

Touches of the 90’s are everywhere: in Sharah’s denim jacket and buttons, in the inflatable couch serving as set piece, in the boombox that makes its triumph entrance held on Sharah’s shoulder, to the opening strains of Robbie Williams 1997 hit “Let me Entertain You”.

Sharah talks through his childhood with lighthearted stories of a loving family that fostered Sharah’s eccentricities and love of music, that would buy a collectible Spice Girls plate for their ten year old son and gently, carefully break the news to him that Ginger Spice had left the group.

The Spice Girls is really the number one touchstone of Sharah’s show. There’s talk of their live-cross on Hey Hey it’s Saturday, a jazzy rendition of “Who Do You Think You Are”, and tossed off references to “Wannabe” and even a couple of the dance moves from “Stop.” Sharah vents his Halliwell-related pain through a performance of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”,  because when Sharah takes us into the 90’s, he goes deep and the results are fantastic.

Sharah is an electric performer. He has that indescribable charisma of all great, memorable performers, and he understands how to use it; there’s a rawness to his performance that makes it seem like something spontaneous and uninhibited, despite his careful and cerebral arrangements (musical director Nigel Ubrihien is a master of this) and strong technical vocal ability. Raised on musical theatre, Disney movies, and then taking great stock in girl- and boy- bands, he is theatrical, expressive, and emininently, increasingly, watchable.

Barely a stone is left unturned in this confident performance – teen movies like She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You get a look-in, as well as scrunchies and fast-forwarding through VCRs and cassette players, and the torture we can now freely admit is the experience of watching Titanic. We spend some time with The Bodyguard – Sharah does a brilliant Whitney Houston from the soundtrack, and it’s not the one you think – and the night is funny and fun and breezy and great.

And then, for a moment, for a number, Sharah revisits an album that means more to him as an adult than it did in its native 90s, and as he stands there with the very real and adult understanding of heartbreak and desperate, declarative anger and hurt, he crosses over into the sublime, he reaches his 90s apotheosis. Sharah performs Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” with all the soul that should be heaved into it and we are transfixed; Sharah leaves lighthearted patter at the door and goes for it; he brings the house down. He ends alone, strong, defiant even as “the mess you left when you went away”, musicians backstage, a capella as he brings it home, caught in a moment alone before us. The applause is raucous. The screams and whistles are many. There is no way you can’t take Tom Sharah seriously. If everyone brought themselves to a performance the way Sharah does to his veritable 11 o’clock number, we’d never worry about the health of cabaret in this city ever again.

When it’s over and the applause dies down, Sharah – emotional, and clearly surprised by that – wipes his face, insists we move back into something light, remarks with a breathless laugh that continuing to perform the song might be the death of him. There’s no denying it goes to a real place and finds a real place with all of us.

But Sharah finds his grounding again and he finds it truly and fittingly in family, the thing that in the 90’s that supported him, the thing he references frequently, both blood relatives and the family that you make from friends, the thing that celebrates him so he can celebrate himself, 90’s addiction and all.

Sharah brings his brother Oscar to the stage for a boy band melody that’s fun, and musically exciting, and beautifully sung (Oscar Sharah is just as talented as the rest of his family), and the warmth and happiness, the secure belonging from the stage seeps into the audience. We could only leave happy, and when Sharah sings his encore – Wendy Matthews’ “The Day You Went Away” – we are happy; happy and impressed.

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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