Historians Call Us Roommates: A Queer Cabaret (review)

Midsumma-2024-Historians-Chelsea-HeaneyThere’s a tendency for long-term queer love affairs to be mislabelled as friendships in historical accounts. Unless the chroniclers were incredibly naïve (or maybe because accurate accounts could endanger the writer?), history has been “cis-straight-white-washed”. To correct this, performer Chelsea Heaney is here “to set the record … gay” in Historians Call Us Roommates: A Queer Cabaret.

Much of the show concerns figures from the 1700s. There’s a fearsome French soldier who was secretly a woman for much of her life; a polyamorous rectangle involving authors Mary and Percy Shelley; and even a nun who committed some pretty sketchy acts to be with her lady love.

The show is Heaney’s Midsumma debut, and with restrained swearing and nothing too overt, it’s pitched well for the 5:30pm timeslot. Whilst there was some serious content on the mistreatment of queer folk and recognition denied them, we don’t dwell on hardships for too long.

Instead, we had sequences describing how historical figures were bad asses in challenging authority, had outrageously wild adventures, and achieved great deeds, which often scored good laughs.

The show’s comedic aspects were assisted by Heaney’s lively performance style. Where a historical character might have to conceal, or reveal their gender, Heaney has a costume change (or a gesture) for that.

Spliced between the tales, Heaney gave us snippets of her love affairs, and some songs. Possibly due to opening/closing night nerves, lower notes were sometimes less controlled than others. There was also some tendency for lines to fade towards their end, suggesting a need to manage breath better in certain situations. However, generally tunes were handled well.

It’s often said that if the performers are having a good time, then so will the audience. Musical Director (and birthday boy) Jamie Burgess seemed to smile the whole way through the show as he provided bright and sparkling accompaniment from the keyboard.

Whilst this is a good show already, there are some minor distractions. For example, there’s a tale of great bantam-weight boxer from Panama in the 1920s that tells us little about them beyond their achievements and flaws. This stands in contrast to other stories that fleshed out characters, and had a particular love story.

All the same, with both entertaining and educational components, this work made a useful contribution to the range on offer at Midsumma 2024. Rather than becoming a historical note, it seems appropriate that the show should be shared with more roommates in the near future.

Historians Call Us Roommates: A Queer Cabaret
The Butterfly Club, 5 Carson Place, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 10 February 2024
Information: www.midsumma.org.au

Image: Chelsea Heaney (supplied)

Review: Jason Whyte