Singular survivor hangs up her feather boa

23 June 2021

David Zampatti went to the iconic drag queen Carlotta’s last party at The Maj, and left wondering if there will be others as brave to take her place?

‘Carlotta – The Party’s Over’, Perth International Cabaret Festival ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 22 June ·

Richard Laurence Byron, that naughty once-a-boy from Balmain, has transacted her flamboyant wares under various nom de plumes in her 77-ish years. Off-stage she’s been Carol Byron, and Carol Spencer since her famous sex reassignment surgery fifty years ago; in 1973, as Carolle Lea, she played Robyn Ross in the ground-breaking soap Number 96, and under other names she’s been a TV panelist on Beauty and the Beast and Studio Ten. Above all, as the star of the iconic all-male review Les Girls for 30 years, she became a one-woman tourist attraction, the Queen of the Cross.

She’s an enterprise, a conglomerate of shape-shifting personas – and her brand name is Carlotta.

Carlotta’s hanging up her feather boa and claims that, unlike John Farnham, she won’t be back. Her last party at The Maj for the Perth International Cabaret Festival (PICF) is, it must be said, an odd affair. If it has a theme, it’s an undeniable and impressive one; that she’s a survivor.

Carlotta’s last party at His Majesty’s Theatre, supported by Michael Griffiths and rhythm section. Photo: Vanessa Cooper

Carlotta’s life and career has been well documented in the last few years – she’s unquestionably an extraordinarily courageous, singular figure in Australian culture and society, and we can only admire her sheer guts and determination to live the life she chose, the changes she helped bring about and the spotlights she has chosen to stand in to do it, for all those years.

So we can – and must – forgive her everything. If you want to diss her for her more than a little creaky contralto vocals on standards like Everything’s Coming Up Roses, I Write the Songs and My World, or her decidedly leaky tap in For Once in My Life, well, darling, you know where you can shove it.

There’s no way I’m going to.

And if her patter has rough edges gouged into it by years doing leering Leagues Clubs, prurient RSL pokie palaces and howling hen’s nights, well, a girl’s got to eat.

READ MORE: Carlotta chats with Rosalind Appleby about a life spent following her heart in “A final bow for living legend”.

Her show does have the great advantage of PICF’s busy artistic director Michael Griffith’s piano and vocals, especially on Peter Allen’s lovely There’s a Lady on Stage, plus a very competent rhythm section who were genuinely amused by the goings-on in front of them. And an adoring audience is an asset no performer can do without.

But there was a sad foreboding about the show. Australia might have been intolerant, crude and insular back in the day, but it had figures like Carlotta who, somehow, both exemplified and resisted it.

I wonder, as we see those bad old ways emerge again, whether there’ll be other Carlottas with the balls to take her place.    

The Perth International Cabaret Festival continues until 27 June 2021.

Learn more about the festival in this podcast with artistic director Michael Griffiths.

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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