Fairy tales are good for nothing but post-modern appropriation these days, it seems. Kathakali Kabaret, the latest show by comic crooner Aletia Upstairs, re-imagines the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through a syncretic combination of Anne Sexton’s poem, classical Indian dance, storytelling and show tunes. If that mix sounds baffling, it’s because it is: story and performance are so fragmented that the work as a whole becomes little more than insubstantial drivel.
Backed by piano and Indian drums, Upstairs pieces together a hazy tale of a princess persecuted by an envious old queen, halfway between Grimm cruelty and parable from the Mahabharata. After a silent dance prologue, she undergoes minute costume changes onstage occasionally (a veil here, some face paint there), alternates between three microphones, each with its own stand (make up your own allegory) and illustrates the odd line of lyrics or banter with symbolic gestures inspired by kathakali dance-drama. The overall effect resembles a belly dancer speaking in sign language.
Kathakali Kabaret’s repertoire consists mostly of common cabaret fare like Whatever Lola Wants and Love for Sale, sometimes presented as medleys with Hindi songs. The only surprise is Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin. The rest is rather predictable or redundant, as when Upstairs follows Eartha Kitt’s I Want to Be Evil with Ute Lemper’s I Am a Vamp, belabouring the bad-girl theme of the plot.
Underlying this crude mess is the singer’s hesitant antics. Her mistimed jokes become even flatter amidst haphazard text shifts from narration to dramatisation. When Upstairs interacts with the audience, it’s only to make the same round of brief, repetitive teases across the room over and over, absently sitting on laps and fondling heads. Add to that a grating voice that moves from piercing highs to cracking lows as the singer yells into the microphone or whispers away from it, and what you get is an hour of flimsy gags to sit through, rather than to watch.
A short catalogue of the Seven Dwarfs includes some amusing moments as Snow White reacts to their different personality quirks, including a vain metrosexual and a short-sighted kleptomaniac. That aside, Kathakali Kabaret is just a tangled patchwork of competing gimmicks. This abstruse masala may be quite the dish to deconstruct in a Cultural Studies classroom. If what you’re looking for is cabaret, though, you won’t find much entertainment here.
Kathakali Kabaret. Directed by Anna Brownsted. The Pheasantry, London SW3 4UT. 28 November, 20:30. £12. www.aletiaupstairs.com