Le Gateau enters through the audience, in shimmering skin-tight black and a hat that manages to look part Audrey Hepburn, part flying saucer.
His voice fills the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent. On stage, when he shuts his eyes to reach one of those bone trembling low notes, we see the one bit of colour in his outfit: eyeshadow rendering his lids as bright as a Blue Groper’s. He has us charmed from the moment he arrives.
Gateau has been on the circuit for almost 20 years. He was justifiably a favourite in La Clique and La Soirée, for what he offers is unique in form, content and source. His voice can handle anything from opera, through musical theatre to rock and pop. Although known as a baritone, he can sing higher. In this show about his personal musical icons, he treats us to Kate Bush.
Nigerian-born, the gay son of a strict Catholic father and Pentecostal mother, Gateau was always gonna be too big and hairy for trad drag, but Britain’s alt. cabaret scene knew how special he was, and nurtured him. In vulgar Sydneytown, his cheeky, humorous style fits right in.
Icons draws on childhood fantasies, the stage made up as a teenager’s bedroom with posters typical of the 1980s: Boy George. Whitney Houston. Grace Jones. Between songs, Gateau feeds us tidbits of information on his parents’ divorce and a teenage unrequited love who gets married 10 years later, precipitating the torch song It Should’ve been Me.
Another highlight is an interlude of polemic and political commentary spliced together from sources as diverse as Martin Luther King and Pauline Hanson, after which Gateau, on his knees, sings the slave ballad, Lord, How Come Me Here. It is deeply affecting.
In 75 minutes of mostly music, you can only get the tip of the iceberg. Gateau mentions his struggle with depression, the death of his brother at the tender age of 19, and the death of his mentor in the same breath and then is immediately into the next song. At times I felt he could have spoken more. He’s a smart storyteller with a perfect sense of timing and a seemingly bottomless well of anecdotes (this is his third full length solo show). He does pathos beautifully.
Icons’ intention in any case is celebration and homage, and it achieves this in spades. There is a Meatloaf song with a wind machine, and Björk. The Madonna medley didn’t work so well, but that may just be my taste. I do think he was let down on this occasion by technicalities such as blazing backlights, which had the first couple of rows shading their eyes. The sound popped out a couple of times, too.
Outside, the Festival Garden has shrunk to about a fifth of what it once was. I’m not sure why NSW Police were there the night I went, but their ubiquity in Sydney seems by now a fait accompli, and real bloody downer.
Le Gateau Chocolat more than compensated, offering hugs outside afterwards. A performer as generous as he is talented, with a keen sense of connection to his audience. All I wish now is that I’d braved the queue for a hug.