There is a faint air of menace tangible in the Purcell Room as we wait for the seasonal show by globetrotting post-modern diva Meow Meow to start. A dirty Jesus figurine sits atop an old, boxy TV; a Heath Robinson arrangement of cardboard boxes is set off by a lone strip of tinsel; a cargo-net appears to be doubling as a Christmas tree.
An explosion, and then she is there – tottering, weaving her way through the audience, a gold lamé Virgin Mary bearing an inflatable donkey, a shattered halo, two cigarettes, and a whip-sharp tongue. The subverting of expected Christmas tropes is, at one level, what Apocalypse Meow: A Crisis Is Born is ‘about’: presents are handed out (Meow Meow CDs naturally); children are tolerated as the necessary results of flailing search for happiness; while the spirit of goodwill needs a good dose of drugs to help it along.
Meow Meow’s search for a true – any? – meaning of Christmas is a very loose, chaotic expedition, at times flirting with artfully falling apart. While clearly the work of a keen intelligence, and cleverly designed to appear ramshackle, it does feel a bit messy and unfocused.
Advance publicity promises appearances from “special, special guests”, and it’s true to say that some big names – Alan Cummings, Jake Shears and Rufus Wainwright – do turn up: just not quite in the manner you might expect. Meanwhile, kids, mannequins, sex dolls, Father Christmas, even a Meow Meow doppelgänger, all make it on to stage at various points.
Amongst the giddy drama and the one-liners, holding everything together is the voice. Ms Meow, Melissa Madden Gray, has tones which deliver the purest, unadulterated melancholy, tender yet powerful, in English as well German, French and the other languages she effortlessly moves into. Musicians, pianist Lance Horne and multi-instrumentalist David Berger, provide the space for Meow Meow to take off into songs – even raptures.
And the unexpected too. Nick Cave’s (and who knew any of his oeuvre could be taken and turned into a cabaret song?) brooding outback blues Red Right Hand becomes a storming vamp. Imagine if Cormac McCarthy and Liza Minnelli had a torrid affair and gave birth to some moody, needy, angularly beautiful child, and you come close to its power. It is wonderful.
It’s also the moment the show comes closest to feeling like the end of the world; from here the show moves upwards towards a more upbeat vista. The rush of ideas moves towards more obviously more comic territory and the energy level rises, something which provides relief as well as release.
Is this an apocalypse? No, not really. Instead, it’s a questing intelligence playing with, and subverting what can be done with a Christmas performance, and delivering something approaching a catharsis.
Somewhere towards the end of the show, Meow Meow turns to the audience and says, “This evening has been weird, but nice.” It’s hard to disagree.
Meow Meow – Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born. Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London, SE1 8XX. £19. Runs until 29 December. southbankcentre.co.uk