On/Off – Lisa Chappell and the torch(urous) masks of Cabaret. (Theatre review)

Sydney-siders know the Bordello Theatre wasn’t purpose-built for Lisa Chappell’s ebullient and darkly erotic comedy On/Off, but it sure feels like it was when you’re sitting there. Bordello is the kind of theatre that makes me sorry I don’t smoke anymore, with its weighty velveteen, its lavish gold brocade, its sumptuous carved wood, and it is the perfect venue for this irrepressible piece of theatre that’s high on laughs, intimacy and an eclectic collection of cabaret and torch songs. The seventy-five minute show licks and tickles at the audience with its bawdy and tantalizing glimpses of female flesh, use of dirty language and what the cinemas like to call “adult themes”  peppering a parable of two women in and out of their dressing room as they do their best through the high dudgeon of life’s drama to “put on a show.” Chappell has a real talent for circular fiction with a slow burn behind its spiral, so that stories comes full circle with a neat little slap of a twist at the end.


Sarah Sommerville  (Marissa Dikkenberg) is a voluptuous, trophy wife whose primary concern is falling pregnant, as per unspoken obligation. She’s on her lord-knows-how-many rounds of IVF to try to please her philandering husband. Part of the obligation of being a trophy wife, is a dedication (or sorts) to the arts, and this happens to coincide with her huge dreams of becoming a cabaret singer. Using her husband’s money, of which there is plenty, Sarah has produced a cabaret show, and we meet her on opening night. Performing along side Sarah is Maddy Jacobson (Lisa Chappell) who is broke, rebellious and unsystematic. She keeps snakes but not boyfriends, in fact the latest lover (whom she warmly refers to as Fuck Face) has just left her for a more chattell-like female. Just before the curtain goes up on their first show, Sarah gets dumped by her husband via text and Maddy discovers she’s pregnant.


What happens after this chaotic introduction is a funny piece of meta-cabaret as the women appear on stage, sing their numbers, and disappear “off stage” all in plain view of the audience. Unglamorous scramblings into skin-tight evening gowns, enraged text messaging, plethoric consuming of vodka and the various machinations of pregnancy tests are performed behind the singer who is performing the sweetest of cabaret numbers. As each woman takes her place on the stage to sing numbers such as “Get Happy” and “The Man I Love” the turgid reality of the shadow of the songs message is played out by the other party, oblivious to the irony, buried behind a makeup-and-bad-wig-mask of attention to their current emergency. The result is a very funny show and an especially erudite commentary on the truth throbbing at the heart of those old torch and cabaret songs we love so much.


Chappell isn’t just a fine performer with a lovely lilting voice, she’s a barbarous wordsmith as well. The dialogue containing the story of these decorously beautiful women is lusty and large as they roll with the punches of life before us. The atmosphere of the Bordello Theatre, the sultry cabaret, the rapturous gowns speak to a female archetype that is posited against the very modern and at times disquieting discourse of openly ravenous female emotion. Along side the tale of the two women, this nice little juxtaposition opens up an engaging experience with the play – it feels like we are gazing into their dressing room with all the tom-peepery guilt and the TMI shock that goes with getting too close to a woman.


Marissa Dikkenberg has a beautiful, very stage oriented singing voice, that suits her character as the luckless Sarah. Lisa Chappell has a softer, more sultry voice, but the two combine beautifully and the sounds of their singing are one of the reasons to catch the show. No matter how funny or ironic the show, the musical numbers are always a pleasure, fitting in seamlessly with the vixenish surrounds of the theater.  Both women have a lot of fun with their roles, which always makes watching such a pleasure.  Scott Witt directs the women through a surprisingly vigorous hour and a bit, with lots of slapstick (usually at the expense of a gorgeous gown) running around in search of something (or someone?) and ironic stage presence. He keeps the women moving which encourages the high energy and forms a perfect accompaniment to Chappell’s words. Speaking of accompaniment, the electro ivry tickling of Daryl Wallis provide a perfect straight man/sound to the female carry-on of the unruly protagonists and rounds out a funny, ultimately cheerful night of theatre.

On/Off is now showing at the Bordello Theatre in the Kings Cross Hotel, from November 30 through to December 15.

You can grab your tickets here. 

The images of On/Off were provided by Simon Dikkenberg with the exception of the two below of the Bordello Theatre which came from Mum’s in Blog.