Shanghai Sheba & The China MonologuesReviewed by Alison Little
Shanghai Sheba & The China
Venue: Sandwiches, cnr Kent Tce and Majoribanks St,
Feb 10th only
In the 2005 Fringe Festival Sheba Williams dazzled with her tribute to tribute to 1920s icon Josephine Baker. Now she gives us the story of Shanghai, as told in a stylish mix of prose and song by the quintessential bar girl – Shanghai Sheba.
Sheba first appears as a old-fashioned bar entertainer, with dramatic mask-style make-up, hugely sleeved robe and pearl-dripping head-dress. A brief history lesson, archly delivered in a thick Chinglish accent, describes the mid-19th Century Opium Wars, when Britain forced a reluctant China to open to trade and in the process remade Shanghai as a centre of both commerce and vice.
Then the story moves to the 1930s, with linking history notes delivered by a man with well feathered wings, claiming just a little megalomaniacally to be God. This gives time for Sheba to transform to her next incarnation, a White Russian refugee from Vladivostok, with a sharp bob and glittering gold eye shadow, very much in the style of Marlene Dietrich’s Lily. The 1930s Shanghai is a city of mobsters, and this good time gal wants to escape. So, she’s looking for a man, one with money and the right passport. Lucky Stu, sitting in the front row of the audience seemed to fit, and was the subject of a improvised love song, to "Stu-Stu-Stu-Stuwyyy".
God shifts the timeframe again, to Chairman Mao’s revolution. Now Sheba denounces the capitalists in clipped angry tones – and softens to sing more decadent cabaret songs.
With digs at colonialism, capitalism, communism, racism and a few other ‘isms’ along the way, this show touches on some serious issues. But although subtitled "Shanghai Monologues", Sheba’s singing is still the absolute heart of the show. Especially delicious is her rework of Eartha Kitt’s "I want to be Evil" in the first segment, when the first Sheba decides to embrace the foreign devils, and their devilish foreign vices.
A small but perfectly formed set of cabaret musicians (Tim Solly and Richard Wise) round out this bar-side view of China’s recent history.