China might be in control of rare earth metals, but Sydney is still very much on its mettle when it comes to political satire, thanks, almost exclsusively, to the individual and combined talents of Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phil Scott and, now, Amanda Bishop. No, not the Channel 10 entertainment reporter and daughter of Frankenstein’s bride, another one.
I’ve long since lost count of how many years Sydney Theatre Company’s annual Wharf Revue‘s been running, but it certainly hasn’t lost its edge. Bitter, twisted, caustic and comedic, it covers a lot of fertile ground in 90 minutes or so. This year’s Sondheimesque theme of Not Quite Out Of The Woods focusses in on the stuck-in-the-mud stagnation of the minority government we apparently asked for and deserve. Subtitled ‘a Grimm reality’, it has moments as dark as the hauntingly gothic poster that promotes it. featuring a defiant ranga, as Little Red Riding Hood, confronted by a caped, crusading wolf, whose budgie smugglers suggest he’s glad to see her, but whose overall demeanour doesn’t.
The opening segment features Biggins, as a brusque and arrogant Tony Jones, fronting Q&A, a programme to which, as seems to be widely the case, I religiously adhere but which, as is pointed out, amounts to little more than a handful of pontificating narcissists who revel in the sounds of their own voices self-indulging in yet another talkfest, community cabinet, or whatever name you want to give it. As such, talking about progressive change would seem to exert little influence on its implementation, if current stasis is anything to go by. A video questioner confesses he doesn’t actually have a question, but that he just wanted to be on television. Panellists include the equivocating Fraser, Keating (who Biggins does especially well), Bishop’s uncannily bright-eyed Annabel Crabb replica and Forsythe’s Coke-bottled Michelle Grattan. It’s braveheartedly cruel and bloody hilarious.
Amanda Bishop is almost too good as the Joolya (who, as we’re later told, by the Scott Ruddbot, reminiscing at the piano, “crashed through the glass ceiling while I was still standing on it”), “a fiery filly, first PM without a willy, who holds the keys to Kirribilli”: she has the hand gestures pretty much down pat, to say nothing of the interminable, flat vowels. No way Gillard could ever win a fast round of Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of Pickled Peppers. Her nemeses populate the foreboding forest: the poisonous Pynes and gragantuan Oakes (only Clive Palmer, who squeezes out of a hole in the ground, is bigger and gruffer). “What’s the difference between the Catholic church and the ALP? The ALP can’t fuck with miners.” Boom-boom! As well, out heroine, or victim, must face up to the independents, bedded down together. And Bob Brown’s no help in seeing the wood for the trees: nothing can be cleared, as this is old-growth forest. His axe might be sharpened, but he’s never going to use it. But our Juila won’t be waylaid by anyone: she has to keep moving forward, for the sake of working families.
Segue to a manger, in Barry, Wales, birthplace of Ms Gillard, the Julia in their crown, Queen of Australia, albeit with “a voice that could cut coal”. The lighting dims as we launch into a fractured recapitulation of Under Milkwood, delivered with stereotypical Welsh solemnity, interpolating a corruption of All Through The Night. It’s executed brilliantly. And so is JG.
The Shakespearean drama of NSW politics laid bare unfolds before our eyes. Frank Sartor, a grasping opportunist, clamouring for any vestige of power he can wrangle. Who wouldv’e thought? David Campbell appears wrapped in a towel, freshly-fluffed, after a steambath. Bishop is also consummate as the vacuous Keneally (Kristina, not Tom), seeing herself in a bright spotlight noone else seems to perceive. Eric Roozendaal is there too; all bow down to Joe Tripodi, appealing for post-parliamnetary jobs for the girl and boys.
Even Osama bin Laden (who might well trump both Gillard and Abbot in a Newspoll or focus group) makes a video cameo. Yesterday’s terrorist mastermind has lost his Tag-Heuer timepiece. If you happen to see it, please return it to Jim Laden, c/o Caves House. Ah, so that’s where he’s been hiding!
There’s Kevin07’s Boulevard Of Broken Dreams, featuring Scott’s prodigious pianism. Then Don Watson’s Party, a merciless swipe at the intelligentsia, targetting PK’s self-aggrandising speechwriter and the tall-poppy playwright, but with others, like Philip Adams, also in their sights.
There’s another party, as well. The Tea Party, Alice In Wonderland gone horribly awry, at which guests (including, of course, Sarah Palin) loudly proclaim their preference for the white, amongst the red and blue. They even take their tea white ‘n’ strong. This sketch is nailed so tightly you can feel the vibration of the hammer. Biting doesn’t begin to cover it.
And just when you’re recovering from the thunder of a storm in a teacup, there’s The Population Song, proposing the most pragmatic solution possible to the prospect of overpopulation.
Arguably the best sequence is the Eurodivision Sovereign Debt Contest, with Norwegian host, and featuring Phil Scott as a jackbooted, goose-stepping, short-skirted; coy Angela Merkel, whining about having to bail out near neighbours and pining for the resurgence of the Reich. Very Cabaret. Then there the stars of, ah, Greece, tightly-clad in white jumpsuits. There were the Irish “feckin” Drovers, too, or drover’s dogs, bemoaning a return to traditional poverty.
The Abbotar, a reptilian monster, is all ears, apart from his mealy mouth, emerging from beneath the stage, the veritable underworld, in a cloud of smoke, to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Hey Hey It’s Yesterday is hosted by a foul-mouthed, emu-strangling Latham, a lonely voice in the wilderness, surrounded by grotesque, if ostensibly benign imaginary creatures. Paranoia doesn’t make for a pretty picture.
The mutable Forysthe surfaced again as an old geezer, reflecting how PMs change every five minutes and the new one looks like a woman! In his days, prime ministers were in for life: Bob Menzies was in power for 85 years. Or so it seemed. Speaking of old geezers, somewhat to my surprise, the audience was overwhelmingly ‘aging’. It must’ve been: there aren’t many places I can go and feel like one of the youngest in the room. Perhaps the term revue brings in the Zimmer frames. After all, it sounds and, to an extent, looks like a nostalgic return to old-fashioned variety; song ‘n’ dance; vaudeville. It meant some of the laughter came with a five-second delay. And even when it finally arrived, long after the lightning-bolt had struck, a lot of it was ‘advertised’ laughter: that all-too-familiar kind that’s forced out to tell the rest of us, ‘I get it!’ But I digress: I’m not here to review the audience.
The Scientific Whalers used The Mikado to mock the Japanese, led by Dr Teriyaka, with wasabi at the ready even while propagating and perpetuating the blue whale of a lie about legitimate experiments: for example, can a whale without a tail swim? Sea shepherds and greenies aren’t spared either.
There’s a wig and costume for every character, most of which afford faster identification than even the Australia card would’ve. (Congratulations, Bonnie Princess Charles.)
It’s our MAD. Our national lampoon. This year though, amidst all the laughs, the loud hailers seems to be shouting a dire warning, last but not least in the finale. They seem to be saying a lot of what they’re harpooning isn’t funny at all. I tend to agree. Then again, as Oscar Wilde observed (presumably to lessen his own pain, as much as anyone else’s, in response to the cruel world he so acutely observed, documented and suffered in), life’s far too important to be taken seriously.
The Senate might suffice as a house of review. But The Wharf is the house of Revue. And no less important in keeping our democracy intact. Yeah! Let’s twis the knife again, like we did last summer.
The details: The Wharf Revue plays Wharf 2 in Sydney until December 19 — tickets on the STC website. The show switches to Melbourne and the Sumner Theatre playing January 5-29 — tickets on the MTC website.