Cabaret review: Jens Radda: Skank Sinatra, The Butterfly Club

This drag queen and comedian has a whole lot of presence and talent.

Skank Sinatra was the second solo drag cabaret show by Melbourne-based, South African-born drag performer and comedian, Jens Radda, based on the music of Frank Sinatra. The show was suitably held at Melbourne’s diva-den and forging-fire of all the greats (Eddie Perfect and Tim Minchin both famously began their careers here) – The Butterfly Club. 

For all his youth, Radda has had some impressive forging already – he’s worked with cabaret legends Finucane & Smith (House of the Heart, FUTURE.JOY.CLUB), performed his previous solo show Frankly Hank (also based on songs of Frank Sinatra) at Perth Fringe in 2017, and has musical theatre training at WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) and clowning training at the famous Parisian school École Philippe Gaulier under his belt. And it’s working for him – his command of body, voice and comic timing is honed and a marvel to watch.

In Skank Sinatra, Radda told personal stories of his life – growing up in South Africa, moving to Melbourne, the challenges of dating another drag performer and all that long-term relationships entail – connected by cabaret versions of Sinatra songs with, as you would expect, a hefty portion of bawdy zingers. The Sinatra classic, ‘New York, New York’, became – with an ironic twist of the lip – ‘Melbourne, Melbourne’.

Radda effortlessly moved from distinct acted scenes to belted-out numbers, stand-up comedy and audience interaction, from performing on piano – including ballads he half-apologised for (‘if you’ll indulge me’) – to big band jazz numbers where he seemed most at home. He kept the pace lively, and there wasn’t much dwelling in the ‘My Way’ end of the Sinatra catalogue. His version of Nancy Sinatra’s classic ‘Bang Bang’ by way of ‘He Had it Coming’ from Chicago was truly inspired, and an example of Radda’s style of performance – maxing the glam, good-time energy to 100%.

Radda’s strength is as a comic actor, and the most effective moments were those where he could employ both his natural sense of comedy and his acting abilities. A memorable sequence was recreating his attempt to enter the infamously-difficult-to-get-into Berghain nightclub in Berlin, employing a soundscape of heavy uber-cool synth, blue lighting and his pitch-perfect characterisation of the arbiter-of-cool bouncer, dripping with perpetual disdain.

The show flowed nicely, making the most of shifts in tone and pace, and the simple set –festoon lighting around the red curtains, side table with flowers, cocktail shaker and martini glass – completed the Vegas Sinatra-era dressing room aesthetic. Radda’s opening silent number pointed out each item and, in a beautiful example of his clowning abilities, called for applause – which the audience cheerfully supplied. The literal show-stopping dramatic device dropped in to enable a costume change (another glam suit – white – and this time a Marilyn-style wig) was a bit of a non sequitur and perhaps a touch forced, but this is cabaret. And everyone loves a costume change.

Read: Theatre review: Do Not Go Gentle, Roslyn Packer Theatre

Radda has an extraordinary presence, and it was very difficult to look away. He towered above us on The Butterfly Club’s tiny cabaret stage in his teetering heels, Republican-red suit, Stepford Wife-esque hair and sparkling silver eyelids. His control and ability to hold the floor was impressive and a joy to experience.

I look forward to what Jens Radda does next: I think he’s really one to watch.

Jens Radda: Skank Sinatra
The Butterfly Club

Director: Olivia Charalambous 
Performer: Jens Radda 

Skank Sinatra was performed at Melbourne’s The Butterfly Club from 29 May–3 June 2023.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen