Piccolo Tales – A living breathing piece of Kings Cross speaks. (Theatre Review)
The Piccolo Cafe, 12 Roslyn Street, Kings Cross
Of all the delightful places to hold a slice of mini-theatre, a cafe in Kings Cross sounds like a crazy idea, untill you walk down Roslyn street, see the chairs set up on the footpath staring directly into a cafe and remember that all the worlds a stage and each of us merely players. It turns out using a cafe for a set is a wonderful idea as it manages to combine the sophisticated charm of theatre with the easy-going relaxed nature of the cafe. I’m one of those people who tends to keep their head down, buy my coffee and race out, or I sit in a corner with my book or laptop and disappear into my own little world, but I am one person and everyone is different and that is part of the joy of the cafe lifestyle, and indeed the joy of theatre. Piccolo Tales reminds us no matter what we are doing that we are part of a broader conversation and that places like cafes unite collections of humanity that might not collide otherwise.
Vittorio is in his 80’s now, a stylish Italian immigrant who came to Australia around the 1950’s with his sister, and together they opened a small cafe in Roslyn street Kings Cross called Cafe Piccolo. True to its name, it’s a tiny little space, still run by Vittorio (his sister has passed away) who has donned the walls with photographs of the colourful characters that have journeyed through the Cross over the years, pausing only to buy coffee at his now iconic cafe. There isn’t a Sydney soul who doesn’t know the Cross is filled with untold stories and it will come as no surprise to find a cafe owner has many of those secrets to tell. Piccolo Tales takes us through the journey of Vittorio, his years as an Australian immigrant ensconced in one of the worlds most famous red light districts. But even more interesting than Vittorio’s many little tales of the colourful folk who come and go, is the observational perspective of an intelligent, creative individual planted deep in Kings Cross culture who has sharply observed and keenly felt all the different manifestations of change this iconic suburb has been subjected to.
Now, with tremendous wit and verve the delightful Vashti Hughes has seen fit to take Vittorio’s tales and perspective and create a clever one-woman-show (that includes the contributions of three very talented guys) walking the enthralled audience through the Kings Cross character transformations from the 1960’s to present day. These include iconic shifts from the Abe Saffron Les Girls days, through the many drug addled years, past the pram mafia to the hipster kale munching world we know today. Piccolo Tales becomes its own delightful meshing of the dramatic transformations this interesting suburb undergoes, apparently every ten years. Hughes is an energetic talented performer, but there is no doubt that the story comes to vibrant life when we reach the years she herself has lived through. She has the cafe in hysterics at her imitation of the beige-tinted pram mafia treading shamelessly over history and culture in a search for decent car parks, demonstrated in great lines like “Speak to Clover, I need to park the rover” or when she musses her hair, screeches “Where’s me staarrrf?” as she liberates several members of the audience of their belongings in order to purchase drugs. Although her earlier impersonations of the truly revolting Abe Saffron and the 1960’s Vietnam vets are heartwarming and well performed, she shines brightest from the 1980’s forward.
As if this very funny take on the local neighborhood isn’t enough, Vittorio himself is part of the play, first as a customer demanding better coffee, later as an accompaniment to so many of Hughes’ vignettes and finally as Hughes herself, mirroring her performance back at her. It’s a heart warming and fitting finale to a very funny evening reminding the audience that when the push comes to the almighty shoves the Cross experiences every day, we are each other, we reflect each others lives and in the urban setting we are never alone. We build our communities even if we hide away, and rarely will you see this more beautifully demonstrated than in the successful Piccolo Tales. Vashti Hughes is supported by Ross Johnston who wrote the songs she sings to accompany each era and who brings the music to the ‘stage’ from the kitchen. Finally, director James Winter is a strong and peaceful presence, not only giving breath and context to the work, but giving the venue enough rope to transform itself into a mini theatre – something that seems so natural in the context of this extraordinary suburb. Winter allows the Cross to spill into the cafe as the play progresses, and one of the many pleasures of the evening is watching passers by get engaged and fascinated, extending the crowd into the street.
Piccolo Tales is a great way to get in touch with the heart and spirit of local theatre. It’s high quality, fun, a tinsy bit edgy, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – like Vittorio himself. It’s a fine way to pause and engage with local culture and remind ourselves what the true cost of those busy busy lives can be.