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Print Version

Presented by Spanky (NZ, UK)

at James Cabaret, Hania Street, Wellington
From 8 Mar 2014 to 9 Mar 2014
[1hr 5 mins (no interval)]

Reviewed by James McKinnon, 9 Mar 2014

Watching Candice McQueen: Nasty was such a bizarre experience that I find it difficult to distinguish between what can be generally said about the performance and what was unique to the evening. At the end, I turned to my companion and said: “Did we… did we just watch a freaking blackface minstrel routine?!” We were both desperate to believe that we hadn't just joined a crowd of privileged ($50 a ticket, $10 a drink) white people yukking it up at the antics of a man doing a caricature of a black woman, face paint and all.  

The multilayered nature of the performance makes this question undecidable, however, and like Candice herself, the answer is neither black nor white but a weird shade of brown. Candice, after all, is a character played by another character, Spanky, who is played by Rhys Morgan, the pride of Whanganui who left NZ to find fame and fortune abroad as a hugely successful cabaret star in London, where he has performed for three British PMs and Elton John.  

So what we're actually seeing here is Morgan as Spanky as Candice, who is not really a black woman or a drag queen, but a “mister sister.” Arguably, when you already embody a marginalised subjectivity, as Morgan does, it gives you a little poetic/political license to represent the experience of another. Nevertheless, we were unable to immerse ourselves fully in the performance because we were constantly aware that we were in a room full of rich white people laughing at a performance based largely on aping the mannerisms of a… well, whatever Candice is, I didn't see a lot of people like her (him?) in the crowd.

If your background has disposed you to be sensitive to the ethics of cultural appropriation, you may also feel uneasy, not so much about what Morgan /Spanky /McQueen is doing as about what the other privileged white people in the room are laughing at.

Spanky /Candice is an excellent performer. The songs are great, and the story is a clever adaptation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the world of 1990s Hollywood, which will delight literati and pop culture mavens alike, provided they are old enough to remember that Joaquin Phoenix had a brother. The chemistry between the two performers is solid, and Candice has an amazing range, not just vocal, but emotional.  Even at her most absurd and grotesque, she can generate sympathy, and oscillate instantaneously between razor sharp wit and tragic pathos.

This ability to make us see the world from her perspective, to portray the “nasty” as more civilized and cultured than the norm, elevates the performance above stereotype. Candice may look like a caricature at first, but as the evening goes on she proves to have all the complexity and interest of any real person.

Well, maybe not any person. The evening did include one grotesque self-caricature, courtesy of two morons, right at Candice's feet and almost in my lap, who were totally trashed on some kind of premix they smuggled in and chugged out of a Gatorade bottle. They commenced heckling before Candice even took the stage.

Chucklehead number one, not perceiving that the opening number was a parody of ‘American Pie', started shouting the ‘correct' lyrics at the musician. Later, while the guitarist was replacing a broken string (with astonishing alacrity) chucklehead two yelled at Candice, “Stop! Stop! He's broken a string!” as if no one else could see that. It went on like that for the whole show, even after Candice stopped and skewered them (“You know, there's a reason this spotlight is on me”).

While Candice was supremely clever, these clowns were immune to humiliation, and I commend her poise because in her place I would have thrust my stiletto heels into their throats. Just in case you're picturing some binge-drinking teenaged hooligans, by the way, this was a middle-aged, middle-class married couple. Contrary to the moral hysteria in the Dom Post, it seems that pre-loading and binge drinking aren't just for NZ's youth, but fun for the whole family. 
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See also reviews by:
 Colin Morris (The Dominion Post);