Elaine Crombie: Janet’s Vagrant Love @ The Famous Spiegeltent, Adelaide 22/6/2019

During her Cabaret and Politics Talk Session in The Quartet Bar, Julia Zemiro posed these perennial chestnuts, “Do the Arts Matter?” and “Can the Arts Change Lives?” The resounding answer is yes, and Elaine Crombie’s cabaret performance of Janet’s Vagrant Love is the sort of show that does matter and can change lives.

Elaine Crombie is a Pitjantjatjar, Yunkunjtajarra, Warrimul and South Sea Islander woman with a stellar career in television, film and theatre. She also works for the Media and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA) as a First Nations organiser and has stories to tell that really matter.

The beauty of cabaret, though is that the message comes through songs, wisecracks as well as the stories. Elaine Crombie’s alter ego, the vagrant lover, Janet shares her bedroom with her silent masked side kick Ferg and regularly taunts the audience with ribald asides, “you’re all dressed, so I’ve got no idea why you have come to my bedroom.”

The truth is, the audience have come into her bedroom to listen to her bare her soul as she tells stories that are raw and real to the First Nations People of Australia. These are the stories of Indigenous lives taken too soon, of young indigenous girls being raped, of school teachers taunting indigenous kids with Captain Cook’s heroics and disdain for the First Nations people, of police violence towards young indigenous kids. But stories without passion don’t change lives, and this is where these unfortunately, now all too familiar Australian scenarios have a powerful transformative effect in the hands of a gifted performer like Crombie. First, she seduces you with sweet talk and wit and then explodes into a power of emotion channelled through her original songs.

Backed by Grayson (I think I got that right) on guitar and Michelle on the percussion sound box, her songs are haunting, soulful and evocative. Elaine Crombie has got one of those incredibly powerful yet clear voices where you get swept up in the emotion yet manage to hold onto every word she sings. And the lyrics matter. They are what this show is all about. Some of the most important things in life are said in bedrooms, and Janet, the Vagrant Lover’s bedroom is a place where lives get changed.

It is one thing knowing about police brutality, or rape, or aboriginal lives taken to soon, or insensitive teachers; its another thing when you are invited into the bedroom of someone who has lived all of that and in an unguarded moment makes you walk in those shoes with her.

Powerful stuff and so well done, because Crombie is as much a master of the quiet moment of introspection, reflection, the stillness and silence as she is of full throated emotion and rage.

Every now and then Crombie allows herself to drop her alter-ego, Janet, and be herself (this is done in a wickedly funny way). And when she switches from the fifteen year-old Janet recalling how she was raped by a respected family man to being herself, she tells the audience that she, Elaine Crombie, is the mother of two boys. As she says, “I never take lightly the fact that I am raising men”, and that point about raising good men hits home so hard because she uses juxtaposition so well.

“I look at my two black sons”, she says, “and I am scared. I am scared because “they” have set up a system where violence wins.” And this is the flip side. We have to change the system as well as be agents of change from within.

This is a show that needs to be seen. It sounds heavy and of course it is, but you don’t leave with a heavy heart, because Elaine Crombie is such a good entertainer.

Just before her beautiful, soulful finale she leaves us with this thought, “I believe in my culture. I believe in my ancestors.” The challenge is to connect with ancient truths while forging change for the better.

Julia Zemiro, the arts do matter and in the hands of special people like Elaine Crombie, they can change lives. Thank you for some really clever programming and a wonderful Cabaret Festival.

Live Review By Bob Becker