Mental As Everything begins with singer-songwriter Damon Smith walking sheepishly on stage and introducing himself by way of anecdote – he likes to carry bananas with him wherever he goes, and indeed there are several atop the grand piano. His stage partner and long-time touring companion, Adam Coad, joins him in conversation before they play an upbeat ragtime intro.

It’s a puzzling introduction, but once the music begins, the audience – in a near-full Quartet Bar on a freezing winter’s night – is on board.

Smith and Coad are both generous in sharing their experiences with mental illness. For Smith, this is obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar 2; for Coad, anxiety. Smith shares a love letter to his ritualistic behaviours from the piano, and, in the highlight of the show, Coad moves from drums to guitar and lead vocals to deliver a heartfelt ballad addressing his social phobia. With so much time spent in each other’s pockets through years of performing together, the pair have an easy dynamic, playful yet sympathetic.

Sadly, the show runs out of steam early. Monologues between songs are loose, often drifting into a stream of dad jokes and failing to provide much-needed structure and narrative. Songs range in style from trad jazz to blues and ragtime, and Smith and Coad are both talented musicians, but more detail about what music means to them within the context of their illnesses would have bolstered the storyline.

Later, we are told that they wish to open conversations about mental health. But the manner in which they do so sometimes raises eyebrows for example, Coad’s song dedicated to two young students who have taken their own lives is uncomfortably whimsical. They also end the show with “a mental health challenge that unites us all: the middle age blues”, a decision that undercuts much of the work achieved in previous discussions of mental illness by pooling lifelong diagnosed mental illness with clichés about anxieties over ageing.

Pop culture has shown us that some artists, in opening conversations about their lived experience with mental illness, find themselves highlighting ableist tropes so as to provide the audience with a frame of reference. In Mental As Everything, Smith states that his ritualistic behaviours – including the carrying of bananas – appear  “crazy” or “mental” to people around him, though they make inherent sense to him. Building public consciousness around mental illness breeds empathy and understanding, but with it also comes a hefty responsibility, including the need to take care with potentially triggering language.

Mental As Everything provides much-needed portrayals and discussion of mental illness beyond depression and generalised anxiety. But the show’s under-development of narrative to take it from a loosely arranged gig to an engaging musical cabaret not only lets down the instrumental talents of the performers, it also undercuts their messages.

Mental As Everything is being presented at the Quartet Bar again tonight and tomorrow night as part of the 2021 Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

See more Cabaret Festival stories and reviews on InReview here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.