Review: 500 Nights of Winter

Singer-songwriter Gene Phoa presents 500 Nights of Winter, an inviting hour of cabaret born out of lockdown. (Image source: Adelaide Fringe)

By Helen Karakulak | @helen_karakulak

500 Nights of Winter is a unique cabaret that draws on techniques of spoken word poetry and acoustic pop ballads to tell a tale of lost love that bounces between cheerful and angsty.

This cabaret explores common setbacks to young relationships, such as harbouring unrealistic expectations, miscommunication and the mentality that relationships are games you should be playing.

Gene Phoa tells his story of falling for a student named Winter on a student exchange in Denmark. He’s convinced Winter is the one, only to eventually find out that for her, he’s one of many. Depicting trivial dating rules like the body count rule of three and picking up a playbook for support, Phoa communicates how distorted the dating game can be, and the urges it prompts. The urge to omit truth, the urge to be good enough, and the urge for revenge when things don’t work out.

The production takes audiences through the importance of getting out of your head, back in the game and learning from love lost. With a simple backdrop of twinkly lights behind the stage set with guitars and FX pedals, the atmosphere is intimate. Paired with Phoa’s conversational monologues, audiences feel like they’re being confided in by a friend. It’s a testament to Phoa’s stage presence that this came through even in the livestreamed watch from home option, which was the mode of watching for review.

Phoa is expressive and articulate throughout his monologues between songs and sound is well-utilised. However, for a format that relies on lyrics to assist storytelling, he falls short with some lyrics running into each other in mumbled and muffled tones that struggle to immerse you in the story. The use of FX pedals and songs featuring the electric guitar over the acoustic show restraint and impressive technique to draw you back in.

It’s important to note the show aims to tell the stories behind the tracks on Phoa’s upcoming debut album. Because of this, the structure of the plot can be seen to take a backseat, with the music guiding the show and taking on more weight than the storyline itself. This is one way in which 500 Nights of Winter sets itself apart from typical theatre, paired with staging and conversational elements, it’s more like a private concert with an in-depth look into the music’s inspiration, rather than immersive fiction.

Courteney Hooper’s shy but stunning vocals are as desirable to audiences as Winter is to Gene. The storyline benefits from the chemistry between Hooper and Phoa, who seem to genuinely enjoy performing alongside each other. There are moments in Phoa’s monologues between songs that while honest and intimate, lack consistently convincing passion for Winter’s character. Seeing them sing together supports the plot, effectively conveying the show’s message through their final songs together. Both Hooper and Phoa boast impressive vocals and their duet closes the show on a high note, conveying chemistry more clearly than the previous monologues.

Overall, 500 Nights of Winter is an enjoyable hour that uniquely uses the cabaret form to elaborate on lessons of lost love and intricacies of dating. With catchy tunes and relatable discussion of the ups and downs of the dating world, it’s a nice reminder not to worry, because Summer is just around the corner.

500 Nights of Winter is playing at the Open Air Theatre at Black Box Theatres at Adelaide Botanic Garden at 9:50pm on Friday, March 12 2021.

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