[THEATRE REVIEW] SHRAPNEL @ fortyfivedownstairs Review (2024)

Few are as fearless in opening up their lives, warts and all, as is Namibian born Natalie Gamsu.

The singer, actor and cabaret performer who moved to Australia in 2003 studied drama at the University of Capetown and has worked all over the world.

She lifts the lid on her experiences, giving us her thoughts and feelings in Shrapnel, in which she fires more than the odd angry shot.

Gamsu is a delightfully engaging and entertaining artiste who can do it all – sing beautifully, with perfect diction, heart and conviction, and deliver evocative stories.

She has us eating out the palms of her hands, hanging on to every word.

Her opening number highlights a litany of place names, many of which she has performed in.

The latter includes Chicago, LA, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Johannesburg.

For more than a decade, before making Australia home, she lived and worked in New York City.

This time, her stage is fortyfivedownstairs, arranged cabaret style, with patrons seated at small tables up front and on tiered seating behind.

She is accompanied by pianist and musical director Mark Jones, in a show she wrote with Ash Flanders, with direction from Stephen Nicolazzo and Flanders.

Gamsu regales us with her love of all things Spanish, including the fire and passion in flamenco dancing.

That starts with her “ugly crying” alongside husband Julian in Barcelona.

She talks about her Jewish roots, her immediate family who lived in a constant state of “tsuris” (distress) and being forever fat shamed by her mother.

Among her most memorable anecdotes is when she downed a whole plate of fudge, complete with red syrup, she found in the fridge. Of course, there is a sting in the tail.

Humour and pathos are comfortable bedfellows for Gamsu, her lively offerings pouring out at pace.

Working in intimate apparel in Manhattan, she met celebrities like Patti Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Brittany Spears.

She also became acutely aware of the feel-good factor in sizing and the role she was expected to play.

Earlier, attending boarding school, where there was a “waste not, want not” attitude, her weight inevitably ballooned.

Her mother, Judy, who – like her father, David – she called by her first name, addressed that each time she returned home, which she found exhausting.

Gamsu snubbed the plastic surgery trait adopted by some of her nearest and dearest, while lunch with granny was an ordeal that left her with bad stomach aches.

Being brought up in South Africa, the family had a maid she loved and a gardener she admired for standing up for himself and about whom she had a sexual dream.

She talks about the hired help’s spartan housing and yarns about growing up eating mieliepap (porridge) and mulberries.

There was a time she was frothing at the mouth and she became an epileptic and another when she met her first agent after graduating from drama school.

She was told in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t attractive and finding work wouldn’t be easy.

Gamsu recalls the rise of white supremacists in South Africa and when president P.W. Botha declared a State of Emergency, and the impact it had.

Switching gears seamlessly, she remembers going to Club 58 with her friend and being “fed” a cap of acid.

She reflects on the moment, while wearing a jumper with holes in it and visiting her grandmother in hospital, that she finally bit back at her mother.

And now, with her mum suffering from dementia, this woman – who lived most of her life on laxatives and diet pills and with the mantra “just keep it down” – has let go.

In her lifetime, Gamsu has had some dark thoughts.

She has known a number of people who have committed suicide, one who even told her where to stab herself if she were to follow suit.

She got married so she could stay in Australia, but her honeymoon left her less than impressed. So, too, working in customer care.

Gamsu has led a very full and diverse life thus far. She is not one to hold back and nor would we want her to.

Complete with mood changing lighting by Sidney Younger and sound design by Noah Chrapot, Sharpnel showcases what a supreme talent we have in our midst.

Featuring a handful of songs in Yiddish, Spanish and English, the show is a rare and fulfilling treat. It is on at fortyfivedownstairs until 23rd June, 2024.

Review and photography by Alex First