By Liam McLoughlin 16/06/2015
Singer, actor and director Tyran Parke credits his Mum for his artistic genes. She won the Newcastle Herald Photo of the Week competition after all. She also gave her little boy his artistic drive, arming him with his first set of Derwent pencils and directing him in his first ever performance: ‘Incy Wincy Spider’, hand signals and all. She fostered his love of stories, familiarising him with the work of the ‘great dramaturge’, play school’s Philip Quast. She also taught him the self-confidence to actually believe the lyrics of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’. So for 9-year-old Tyran, when his mother died suddenly of a severe asthmatic episode, it was as if ‘someone had turned out the sun’.
It’s this astronomical cataclysm around which the sincere stories and moving songs of Parke’s one-man cabaret Children and Art orbit. The title of the show is inspired by artist George Seurat’s pithy sentiment in Stephen Sondheim’s musicalSunday in the Park with George: “There are only two worthwhile things you leave behind when you depart this world of ours– children and art.” While that’s terrible news for childless mathematicians, Children and Art is great news for cabaret enthusiasts. By exploring how he and his two brothers reacted to their mother’s premature passing, both emotionally and artistically, Parke pays tribute to a woman who left behind a worthwhile legacy.
The show succeeds not because of Parke’s stunning voice or impressive acting. It succeeds because his powerful family narrative gives poignancy to a series of classic songs which, without this context, would just sound quite nice.
Parke describes his Mum, alone while the family sleeps, peering up into the night sky on the veranda of their suburban home in Newcastle. He tells us she ‘suffered more than we realised’ before singing Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’ with great empathy. Poetic lyrics like ‘with eyes that know the darkness of my soul’ resonate in light of his Mum’s experience.
We learn about the ‘invisible brother’ Grant, who tried to cling to the positives when he heard of his Mum’s death: ‘Good, now she won’t yell at me anymore’. We listen to a clever extended metaphor about the youngest of three as the downgraded planet Pluto. Grant found it impossible to get the attention and respect from his family that a full planet would deserve, even once the young asthma sufferer had become the ‘king of diseases’. An especially cruel blow came when his aging grandmother forgot his name during a family guessing game. These stories are punctuated by the gorgeous harmonies of Parke and Musical Director Luke Byrne in Ingrid Michaelson’s ‘Keep Breathing’. It is a touching evocation of Grant’s survival instinct in the face of depressing invisibility.
Parke’s intelligent storytelling range goes beyond the melancholic. He tickles the audience with an anecdote about keeping images of sad and angry Guess Whocharacters close by to feel better about himself. His gleeful and energetic rendition of 'Schadenfreude' at this point is perfect.
Parke’s cabaret does have its drawbacks. Some song choices felt less appropriate, such as ‘Make It Here’ by Sam Garner and Derek Gregor, a song about an unsupportive father. He had to clarify afterwards that his father was very supportive. There were one or two weaker songs, such as ‘Kites and Children’ by Georgia Stitt, which evoked banal stereotypes of children who ‘shine like sunlight’, are ‘young and free’ and have ‘air and wings’. They seemed particularly hollow in view of over 200 asylum seeker children in detention in Australia and Nauru and the report released this week that found Indigenous children are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers.
It was also a little off-putting when Parke alternated between Australian and American accents within songs, and his explanation of the mechanics of Guess Who was laboured. The jokes never peaked beyond gently amusing, despite the excitable reactions of one lady who must have been witnessing amusing asides for the very first time. Parke also forgot to introduce Luke Byrne on piano until close to the end. It didn’t appear particularly generous, but was more a forgivable case of absent-mindedness.
Yet these are minor flaws in an excellent piece of work. Long time fans will come out of this show in raptures, like one who said afterwards ‘I cried for the entire last 30 minutes’, or another who said ‘I just watched one of my idols sing one of my favourite songs ever’. Cynics may cringe at some of the more sentimental songs like ‘Fight the Dragons’ from the musical Big Fish, but if you’re going to be indiscriminate with your sarcasm and negativity about musical theatre, you should probably stop trying to be so cool anyway. For the open minded and uninitiated, Tyran Parke will win you over with great talent, first-rate storytelling and universal themes of suffering and the pursuit of lasting meaning.
George Seurat, Philip Quast and Tyran’s Mum would all be very proud.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Children and Art
Written and performed by Tyran Parke
Musical Director: Luke Byrne
Hayes Theatre, Potts Point
3-4 June 2015
Part of Cabaret Season 2015
1-28 June 2015