Twists and Turns with Matthew Mitcham

Nov 11, 2014
Matthew Mitcham's ukulele is "kind of like my security blanket". Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham's ukulele is "kind of like my security blanket". Photo: John McRae

When Australian diver and now cabaret performer Matthew Mitcham was five years old, his mum had a fight with their electricity supplier. It didn’t end well.

“She disagreed with an arbitrary fee they wanted to charge her and she outright refused to pay – so we lived without electricity for six whole months,” he says.

“I was five, so as a five-year-old I lived as though I was in the Victorian era.

“For entertainment, my mum went to a vintage store and bought a wind-up gramophone, so our entertainment was listening to jazz standards on a gramophone.”

It might not have been fun for a little boy who would have preferred to be playing computer games, but the mature Mitcham says he has to thank his single-parent mother for giving him some “wonderfully unique childhood experiences” – a number of which find it into the cabaret show he is presenting during the Feast Festival, which opens in Adelaide this weekend.

Twists and Turns is based on Mitcham’s autobiography of the same name, which he says he wrote because he wanted to help other young people wrestling with the same problems he suffered as a teenager, including depression, low self-esteem and drug abuse.

The cabaret combines story-telling, physical performance (there’s a trampoline on stage) and an eclectic mix of music ranging from jazz classics to song by Rufus Wainwright, Alanis Morissette and The Spice Girls. The script was written by UK cabaret performer Spanky.

“It’s a really good balance between light, fluffy, happy-go-lucky effervescent stuff as well as that heavier stuff,” says Mitcham, who is also the 2014 Feast Festival ambassador.

“Spanky is in the show as well, as my kind of alter ego, inner voice, angel on my shoulder; he evolves towards the end of the show to become my addiction and then he breaks up with me.”

Mitcham, who came out as gay before the 2008 Olympics, says he is excited to be performing at Adelaide’s queer arts and culture festival, and being asked to be the Feast ambassador was “the icing on the cake”.

However, sexuality is not a major theme of Twists and Turns.

“It’s a part of my life and part of my identity but it certainly didn’t have much of a negative impact and it didn’t contribute to my depression, so it’s not a dominating theme … but it would be a glaring omission if it wasn’t in the show.”

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Cabaret may seem a big leap for an Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold-medal-winning sportsman, but the extroverted Mitcham sees it as a natural extension of the performance involved in diving and trampolining (he was originally a trampoline gymnast).

Twists and Turns had its genesis when Melbourne Cabaret Festival organisers invited Mitcham to perform at their closing gala and were so impressed that they suggested producing a full-length show, which has since toured to other parts of the country.

Mitcham had already been playing the ukulele and singing for fun for a few years before that, gaining some notoriety when he uploaded a YouTube clip of himself performing a cover of Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” during the 2012 London Olympics. He recorded another video of himself playing Amy Winehouse’s “I Heard Love is Blind” on his SpongeBob SquarePants uke during the Glasgow Commonwealth Games this year.

“I’ve been playing the ukulele for about four years now,” he says.

“It’s nice and portable. It’s kind of like my security blanket. I take it everywhere I go; I have one in the car and I always take one with me on a plane and when I go overseas for competitions.

“Music is so therapeutic – it helps to distract you. It helps get you out of your own head.”

Matthew Mitcham will perform Twists and Turns at Queer Nexus, in the Lions Arts courtyard, on November 21-22 and 28-29 as part of the Feast Festival. Feast opens this weekend and continues until November 30.

More Feast Festival stories:

Maude Davey: My Life in the Nude
Feast of ideas, art, food and culture – Feast program preview

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