The Adelaide Cabaret Festival is flexing its fabulous muscles by plucking a nostalgic favourite from the past and reviving it with a cabaret twist. Festival director Virginia Gay always loved the ABC’s The Book Club and had been missing the lively literary debates of hosts Jennifer Byrne and Marieke Hardy since they left our airwaves in 2016. Now, Gay is offering Adelaide’s book lovers a blast from the past by performing CPR on their beloved show, cabaret-style.

Between the Covers was The Book Club live on stage, with the literary conversation embellished by jazz singer extraordinaire Mama Alto performing songs matched to the era of The Great Gatsby.

Book Club hosts Byrne and Hardy (whose trademark head-adornment did not disappoint) were joined on stage by Gay for this sparkling discussion.

Discussion of a such a classic text predictably started with the panel revealing the age at which they’d first encountered the novel, and it was no surprise that high school featured for both Hardy and Gay. Byrne remembered reading it quite young and being swept away by Fitzgerald’s “lean sentences with beautiful flourishes of imagery”, which meant that much of the novel’s critique of class, wealth and rapacious greed was lost on her until she re-read it in her 20s.

The Book Club’s familiar dynamic did not take long to re-establish itself. Hardy’s interpretation of Fitzgerald’s writing as “snooty and full of disdain for the lower classes” was swiftly challenged by Byrne, much to the delight of the full house. Although they were mostly in agreement, these moments of diverging opinion tweaked the heartstrings of a nostalgic audience, all of us clearly pining for those years Byrne and Hardy (and Jason Steeger) were members of our own personal bookclub.

Book club cabaret might seem eccentric in concept, but in practice it lived up to every fabulous expectation of the form. Accompanied by piano and stand-up bass, Mama Alto’s glorious voice was the perfect choice to bring the jazz age to life. Shimmering magnificently in silver sequins, Mama’s first number was the only musical piece namechecked in the novel, the foxtrot “Ain’t We Got Fun”. Punctuating the discussion with jazz-age classics, Mama sang Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”, followed by “Tea for Two” and Louis Armstrong’s  “Ain’t Misbehavin”, with Gay joining her mid-set for an enchanting duet of “Bye Bye, Blackbird”.

Between the Covers: Jennifer Byrne, Virginia Gay and Marieke Hardy. Photo: Claudio Raschella

Using the musical interludes as pivot points in the discussion, Gay, Hardy and Byrne ranged across all the usual suspects of literary discussion – character, theme, style – but the conversation’s heat was most palpable when touching on the topics of sex, violence and Fitzgerald’s undeniable misogyny. While all the characters in The Great Gatsby (even Daisy) are eventually revealed to be despicable in some way, Fitzgerald cannot disguise his underlying disdain for women. Every female character is described in an horrific way at some point, with even the most minor of characters unable to escape his contempt. Gay proved this point by quoting a sentence sketching a fleeting female character as “shrill, languid, handsome and horrible”.

While the three were in accord with their love of Fitzgerald’s language and his evocation of passionate yearning in his characters, there were a couple of opportunities to shift the discussion into contemporary cultural debate. Hardy mentioned Claire Dederer’s latest work Monsters, which explores how modern readers struggle to balance moral outrage at the behaviour of artists with love for the work. She posed the fascinating question of whether the panel’s knowledge of Fitzgerald’s poor treatment of his wife Zelda (committing her to an asylum) impacted their respect for his writing. With a collective “no”, the conversation swiftly moved on. Similarly, Gay made an interesting analogy between Gatsby and Trump, but once the laughter faded so did the chance to discuss the parallels between the excesses of pre-Depression America and late-stage capitalism.

The hour-long discussion flew by, and from the enthusiastic response, Between the Covers as an evolution of The Book Club was a rousing success. The Festival Centre’s Banquet Hall was slow to drain of patrons, the literary conversations sparked during the performance still burning long after the lights came up.

Gay’s cabaret-flavoured reinvention of this beloved show proved to be manna from heaven for an audience starved of literary discussions beamed straight into their living rooms. Book Club Cabaret. Who knew? But this reviewer will definitely be back if it returns next year.

Between the Covers was a one-off performance as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which runs until June 22.

Read more Cabaret Festival coverage here.

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