Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Adelaide Festival Theatre Quartet Bar. 24 Jun 2023
The Desert Plea is a ‘work in development’ – the director and producer of the show (Matthew Briggs, Under the Microscope) is very clear about that – but ‘work in development’ almost sounds like an apology, and this show needs none of that. It’s not yet perfect, but it’s future is exciting, and the large audience in the Quartet Bar are already singing its praise.
The Desert Plea is the story of Alice, a musician who ventures into the South Australian bush to an almost ghost-like town with a mission to suggest to its residents a different slant on the possibilities of living their lives. Alice does this through her music. Her mission might be considered arrogant, as she assumes the role of an uninvited saviour, but the experience is cathartic, and she uncovers hidden aspects of herself. In many respects, she experiences healing. Indeed, she pleas to be reconciled with herself and her unique view of a changing world.
Musician/singer Fleur Green and poet David Chapple have collaborated to write original songs and poetry to give life to Alice’s journey, and the result is very affecting. Green sings her songs as she accompanies herself at the piano, and accomplished local actor Rory Walker gives his voice to Chapple’s well-crafted verse. Song. Poem. Song. Poem. And the story unfolds.
Green sings and plays well, but the sound engineering was not always sympathetic to her vocals, playing, and the formal structure of the music. Indeed, some of the early numbers were difficult to hear clearly, and the verse that followed was needed to derive a sense of what was just sung. This will improve as the work is further developed, perhaps with the addition of other instruments to smooth out the sonic balance. The audience however did not shy away from the challenge, and many could be seen intently listening through closed eyes so that the visual would give way to the aural.
Green is the focus of attention – she is alone on stage with her piano and microphone, and the attention does not appear to sit comfortably on her shoulders. Her occasional patter is mildly self-conscious but when she plays the piano and sings, all of that is instantly forgotten. She becomes a different person. She becomes Alice.
Her compositions traverse a range of different musical styles. There are heavily syncopated and complex rhythms, and there are dazzlingly accurate arpeggios up and down the piano sitting under carefully constructed lyrics. The poetry is also complex at times, with polyrhythms that have life breathed into them by Walker’s expert phrasing and enunciation. It’s almost Sondheim-esque at times. These are often followed up by empathetic music of the same ilk.
Arguably, The Desert Plea is more theatre more than it is cabaret, and if that is true, then the next iteration of the show will benefit from more attention being paid to production elements that enhance the story telling: a narrator in person, rather than a recorded voice; projected images to underline the narrative of the poetry; additional musicians; enhanced sound engineering that treats the show as theatre rather than a gig.
The Desert Plea has a big heart. It puts some very important issues ‘under the microscope’ (pun intended), but perhaps tries to say too much. It has the very real potential to become an important piece of theatre.
When: 24 June
Where: Quartet Bar