Edinburgh Festival 97 / Maori, queen of Scots

All the way from Timaru... he's brought his unique brand of cabaret to Edinburgh to prove that kiwis are not the only fruit. Louise Levene meets Mika, the only man in the world who does queer haka
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Let's sit right at the front this time," says a voice, excitedly. Mika, the New Zealand cabaret phenomenon, is into his second week at the Assembly Rooms and half the audience has been there before. I'm sat next to a slightly tipsy group of well-ripened Scottish ladies who are already talking about coming again tomorrow. It's that kind of show.

He and his two lovely assistants stride on to the darkened stage intoning a menacing Maori chant: "Tenei toku ure, whakatu rite taiaha: ahl o te wiro, toku whakapapa e." The Assembly Rooms are suitably impressed. Mika's entrance normally gets a big laugh from Maori audiences because, roughly translated, his haka means "Here is my penis, erect like a spear". Of course, not all New Zealanders speak Maori - a fact that enables Mika to get away with murder: "I was on nationwide TV and they said, `Do a haka', so I said, `OK, Tenei toku ure...' and they had no idea."

Mika's membership of various minority groups not only makes him a novelty for the late-night cabaret circuit, it also give him a lot of credibility. He's a pretty good singer, a lively hoofer and he has an endearing stage presence but those talents alone wouldn't necessarily have funded him all the way to Edinburgh. He has special qualities: he's a Maori (Hello, British Council) and he's gay (Hello, Arts Council). He admits to lobbying shamelessly: "Look, my justification is that I'm the only person in the world who does queer haka."

The Maori element certainly has a big appeal for his many foreign audiences. After his opening night in Edinburgh he changed the entire set, putting back all the Maori stuff. Different countries respond to different mixes. Mika's huge repertoire of specially recorded soundtracks (Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black songs) can be cut and pasted to suit demand: "I have about eight different shows and this is a composite of about two or three."

The show has a sincere but rather soggy patch in the middle in which he takes the floor solo to give a short homily on Aids and the friends it has stolen from him, followed by a half-whispered rendition of "Wind beneath my wings". For several of us, this was time to pass the sick-bag. Mika acknowledges that this sequence is not everybody's favourite: "My sister can't stand it. She prefers me disco dancing all night. Some gay people feel it's sentimental squat but then some people still don't like you talking about Aids and HIV. They've come to see a bit of a camp show, they don't want to know that you're really a homosexual." He doesn't care. He wants us to know that he's not just draggy cabaret: "I was very influenced by Whoopi Goldberg's stand-up routines. I loved the fact that she could be so funny but drop these things into the comedy."

His appeal to gay men is apparent but he accepts admiration from all quarters: "A woman can look at me and say, `yum'; a straight man can walk out thinking, `I quite like the look of that'." He also goes down a storm with lesbian audiences: "A lot of lesbians come up and say they want to have sex with me." So. Spoilt for choice, really. This pansexual charm doesn't get in the way of his mainstream appeal. He has a list of TV appearances as long as your arm and hopes his British success will lead to more shows. He recently played six weeks in Auckland - something he's very proud of: "Six weeks in Auckland is like a three-year run of Cats anywhere else. Even the Maori Queen has seen my work." He's very keen on the Maori Queen and talks approvingly of her unpretentious ways (she washes up after traditional banquets, apparently). "She's kind of like a favourite auntie, like the Queen Mum I suppose." Like the Queen Mother, she is a big fan of the arts: "I often escort her to the opera. She led the standing ovation for us one time."

Mika was brought up in Timaru by his (white) adopted parents. His father was not in show business (he was a technician in the Post Office) but Mika discovered that his real father was a singer on the pub circuits. He moved to Christchurch, then to the Wellington School of Dance. His CV suggests a life crowded with incident: TV game-shows, musicals, videos, a brief appearance in The Piano.

Mika, with his big voice, sweet smile and winning way with an audience is undoubtedly the heart of the show, but much of his Edinburgh success has been due to the UhuRas (named after the cult Star Trek astronette). Cassandra and Kornisha flank (and outflank) him with fabulously corny high-kicking routines and hilarious grimaces. Kornisha is a particular hit with her bored-to-death leer and switch-blade legs. While Mika powers his way through "Butterfly of Love", she struts her stuff behind him - yawning. When he gets to "Spread your tiny wings and fly away", she's flat on her back, her long legs spread welcomingly wide. Without this playful sabotage, Mika's show could run the risk of being dangerously close to a glorified karaoke evening and lose its subversive charm. Besides, the UhuRas are great PR. They change costume after the show to sell cassettes and adorn the Assembly Room bar purring sweetly as lovesick punters tell them how wonderful they were. Cassandra and Kornisha spend several months of the year touring but also have commitments in New Zealand. They are members of the Douglas Wright Dance Company and Cassandra is the proud father of three new babies back home (don't ask). The mouth waters at the thought that this luscious pair have been fished from an entire pool of 10 UhuRas, not all Maori and not all men.

When we discuss Mika's future British visits, he makes an announcement that is something of a shock: he may not bring the UhuRas. Apparently the show works just fine solo and, although he admires them and adores them, he doesn't see them as a vital component. "I love having the UhuRas, but I prefer doing the solo show because I can play with the audience more." A chill descends as I contemplate Mika sans UhuRas. "They don't book them at home any more. No reviewer's ever said, `We miss the UhuRas'.

Once you've seen them, you've seen them." Mmmm, adorable though he is, Mika should be wary of underestimating their appeal. I'm not sure Britain is ready for Mika solo and he might find it very lonely up there without them. Bring on the dancing girlsn

Venue 3, 11.50pm, to 30 Aug (0131-226 2428)