iOTA – Slap & Tickle @ Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide 22/6/2019

With a resume that has included Bowie, Hedwig, and Rocky Horror and last in Adelaide in February for the ASO Plays Bond concerts, iOTA with Russell Leonard in tow has returned for the Vegas vaudeville two-hander Slap and Tickle.

At first glance, Slap and Tickle comes across like a demonstrative show-reel, a grab bag selection of material from iOTA’s solo career (past album titles include Beauty Queen of the Sea and Wolf Number Nine) but subsequent investigation reveals Slap and Tickle is only thematically reminiscent of his past releases.

With Russell Leonard’s Tickle as his literal and physical comic sidekick, iOTA has included an element of autobiography alluding to his sexuality in order to contextualise their interactions. While the backstage is at times played front of stage in a dressing room set up with a glassless mirror and the costume changes taking place onstage in view of the audience, the fourth wall was not exactly breached. Slap and Tickle’s performances and speaking to the audience were more speaking to themselves as stylised inner-monologues or latterly unspoken reflection.

The show begins with an introductory mimed comic routine with complementing sound effects like a 1920s radio play supplied by members of the 11 piece band that included Adelaide’s sax virtuoso Adam Page and bassist Lyndon Gray. iOTA appears dressed in his default Pierrot-syled costume of white polka dots on black, possibly an analogy for the light amongst the dark themes of the musical numbers to follow. Russell Leonard is the zipper-face outfitted gimp Tickle in a playful take on S&M that doesn’t cross the boundaries into the potentially offensive areas that other recent Adelaide Cabaret Festival shows may have (Was anyone at Dickie Beau’s show when some closeted members of the audience were banging on the doors to get out towards the end of that final lip-synched monologue?).

The songs (please forgive any erroneous titles) that play across genres are performed mostly by iOTA in costume and gender changing character “guest appearances”, starting with I’m not that cabaret before the appearance of the ethereal Sirena Mistress of the Sea. Tickle gets the first of his solo pieces with the comic I’m a Gimp before iOTA returns as Wayno Braino the bogan mind reader with Tickle operating a spotlight from the audience. This performance ends with the sexually-charged firing of a glitter gun over the front tables.

Eva the Diva, the lovechild of Marilyn Munroe and Frank-N-Furter sings When I sing in a Musical. There’s the levity of the “I’m Slap / I’m Tickle” duet, an interlude sounding like it is from a cowboy musical during which the two playfully wrestle. The show gets thematically dark with The Wolfman sung by an amalgam of Ian Dury and Captain Beefheart (although most people would recognise the reference of Tom Waits, I think it went further back to the source for this lycanthropic number). The brass-ensemble sound-tracked physical transformation of iOTA into a werewolf ends in an inexplicable moment where Tickle appears menacingly motionless and rabbit-eared like Frank from Donnie Darko.

There is a musical turnaround with the melancholic fishing boy-king (apparently known as the Sad Frog) spotlighted singing Alone Again (not the Gilbert O’Sullivan song) rewarded by the first round of applause from an audience having been unsure of when to clap until now. The announced Hugo the Snake Charmer leads into the simple but effective puppetry of Sammy the Snake, who we are informed is a vegetarian as the song progresses from acapella into oompah.

The show draws to close the too soon with a metaphorical take on the end of Slap and Tickle’s creative and physical relationship with It’s time to say goodnight… sung by iOTA while an almost everyday dressed Tickle dances plaintively in a moment representing departure and their ultimate break-up sound-tracked beautifully and appropriately by the brass ensemble, bass and piano. Slap meanwhile sits facing a non-present globe-surrounded dressing room mirror in a thematic Bowie-like moment of stylised reflection and meditation before the contrasting energetic country rock vaudeville theme is played, like the ending of an Elvis Vegas show, while the protagonists bow front of stage.

At 55 minutes, less than the listed 70, the very loose narrative was too disjointed to be completely cohesive but I don’t think that was the actual point. While first performed at the Perth Fringe festival in 2018, the show although not entirely seeming like a work in progress would benefit from extra songs and further exploration of the slightly underused gimp of Tickle, who suffers from being the butt of the jokes, so to speak.

The show does give rise to several question. Who is anybody but the role they are playing? Who are you/we without our audience? If you peel away the make-up, what or who is there underneath?

Live Review by Jason Leigh