Beer and Other Sins: Sobering up at the Tuxedo Cat

In June, it’ll be five years since Bryan Lynagh quit the liquor cold. To some, it may seem like an odd lifestyle choice for a man who is in the drinks business, but he says it was the best decision he ever made.

“There was always a reason to drink,” Bryan says. “It’s Australia Day. It’s someone’s birthday. It’s your anniversary. It’s Friday night. It’s election time. It’s five o’clock on a Wednesday night and Royce has rocked up to the bar, let’s have a drink. It’s just stupid.”

Drunk Bryan was no good to anyone, he says. Drunk Bryan’s life was disappearing chunks at a time. He was failing his daughter, failing his business and failing the people he cared most about.

So instead of a beer, the 43-year-old cracks a softie and pulls up a seat at the table. It’s the final week of Fringe at Tuxedo Cat and Mad March looks like it’s taken a toll. Bryan hasn’t slept, he’s down to the last of his good, clean shirts and the pants he’s currently wearing are the only pair he owns that don’t have a hole in the crotch.

In October last year, he and his business partner Cassandra Tombs settled into the Cats’ new home above the Seoul Grocery across from China Town’s northern gates.

Inside, the lights wash the Cat in neon blues and reds. The bar itself is made out of old VHS tapes glued together like bricks. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling and the seating over at the back was reclaimed from the old Royal Adelaide Hospital waiting rooms. That whole section of the room is set up to feel like an airport departure lounge, Cass explains. The idea is that when people go into a show, it’s a chance to escape for an hour and experience something new.

The Cat itself is an Adelaide institution. Over a decade ago, Bryan and Cass opened a bar on the rooftop of a building off Rundle Street that no longer stands. Ever since it has been a bohemian refuge for comedians, cabaret performers, poets and other assorted misfits. It is a bar which has launched a hundred careers and outlasted several buildings. A lifetime ago, it even employed me as a bar tender.

“You have to get the man in the kilt,” Bryan says, pointing to the guy leaning again the bar nursing a beer stein. He’s a Tuxedo Cat regular and has been coming to the Cat so often he’s now part of the furniture. As he takes up the invitation to join us, the man in the kilt introduces himself as Michael.

Most people, though, just call him The Man in the Kilt.

“People always want to know if you’re 100 percent,” The Man in the Kilt says. “That just means they want to know if you are wearing underpants. The Scottish don’t wear underpants.

“I wear underpants.”

The Man in the Kilt is also mostly Italian and no, he doesn’t play the bagpipes. He’s a software engineer by trade, though he’s not allowed to talk about his work. He’s in defence and it’s classified, but it pays well enough and he only has to work three days a week. That gives him plenty of time to sink beers in bars like this one.

This Fringe has been rough on the Cat. Ever since the Fringe scaled up, it’s getting harder to be a small venue in this city. Some of the Cat’s veterans now play the Big Tent in the Garden, but every year Bryan says, it’s getting harder for the little guys to get numbers.

“Artists just can’t sell tickets,” Bryan says.

In a world that is rapidly turning beige, the Fringe used to be a splash of colour, a tinge of weird with the Tuxedo Cat helping lead the charge. The Cat has always been a place for established artists with an experimental work and for new artists with fresh work. Whatever crowd they drew the first year would build over the next two until they had a following large enough to give them a real shot at a career.

The art is what Bryan Lynagh lives for, though that’s something this city seems to caring less about lately. Adelaide’s gone big. Adelaide likes high end. On some particularly dark nights, in some especially bitter corner of his bar, people whisper about how the Fringe has lost its way, how it’s become the ‘McFringe’.

These days, it does seem to be all about the drinking, Bryan says. That’s a problem he happens to know a little about. If people are angry, they’re angry because they care. Change, he says, begins with recognition and then it’s about making a decision.

“Trust me,” Bryan says, “you feel better in the morning.”

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.