Amanda Bishop and Josh Quong Tart in The Wharf Revue | Wharf 1 (Pic: Tracey Schramm)

How many years has it been going now? Buggered if I know. I think Andrew Upton said something about 19. Suffice to say Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Revue — brainchild of diehards Jonathan Biggins, Phil Scott and Drew Forsythe — is an institution, an icon, almost as much a part of our collective consciousness as the Sydney Opera House or Harbour Bridge.

This year sees something of a departure for the show (not that every year isn’t something of a departure from the last): it blasts off into deep, interplanetary space. Out there, it’s a bit like Australia, anyway. Plenty of room to move. And a big void in the middle. This is Red Wharf: Beyond The Rings Of Satire and the name proves to be more than mere gimmick.

The protagonists arrive in their NADA spacesuits. But even in taking on a futuristic bent, Red Wharf dredges up the past. Arguably, the funniest set-up is the projected image of Paul Keating (Biggins, who, this year, while credited as a co-creator, isn’t as a performer and is only seen in this sketch). Well, Keating’s head, under a glass bell, adjacent to his prized antique French clocks. I’m a little surprised the team didn’t succumb to a Hanson spoof and begin with, “if you’re watching this, I’m dead”, but it’s a killer regardless. In case you’ve not been privy to it, Biggins does an almost dead ringer PK, so it almost doesn’t matter what he says; it’s bloody funny anyway. But, as you’d expect, the writing is sharp as a tack, so the funny bone is mercilessly tickled.

When I said the name is more than a gimmick, I was referring to the fact that, this year, the revue has indeed stepped beyond the rings of satire. First of all, there’s the irony of setting the action in the future, presenting blasts from the past (our present). The intention seems to be to point to the tension between the opposing forces of linear time and suggest we’re facing an unrelenting future, coming at us  at warp speed, but not facing up to that future, thanks to political retardation.

The “revuers” seem to have lost even their sense of humour, boundless though this has previously appeared, as well as their patience. This is no more potently, patently obvious than when Josh Quong Tart (a new recruit) and Amanda Bishop (the quintessential Julia) shyly shuffle on stage as two refugees, newly arrived by leaky boat. They break into song, but with rhyming couplets like “you don’t want us, ’cause we didn’t come by Qantas”, this goes beyond the joke; it’s like a simultaneous stabbing to the heart and head.

Red Wharf begins, however, with another number, Carbon Tax; unfortunately, though, this was marred by muddy sound which obliterated many of the lyrics.

Galileo sees Forsythe as the stern, unforgiving, omnipotent, all-knowing Cardinal (Andrew) Bolt, first trying the sketch’s namesake for his heretical part in the scientific revolution, then the meek Tim Flannery. Only Malcolm “Skywalker” Turnbull rivals his holiness for sheer self-assurance.

There’s an adaptation of Python’s cheese shop (let’s call it homage), recast as a gun shop. This was the only aspect of the show which seemed a little out of its time and had me wondering “why this, why now?” (not that it isn’t always topical, to a lesser or greater extent). The Same Sex Marriage of Figaro, though also a frivolous romp in substance, at least at pointed topicality and, as usual where Phil Scott’s concerned, pointed to his vast musical vocabulary and uncanny ability to, well, marry material that might otherwise seem unweddable.

If you can spot the difference, right off, between Joe Hockey and R2D2, in which form he’s been incarnated, you’re more observant than I. Forsythe does Christopher Pyne (or is it Pain) as C3PO and to an effeminate tee. Absolutely fabulous; prefect (and I do mean prefect)! Other prominent members of the Liberal Party get the Star Wars treatment too. Julie Bishop is a cross-eyed, bunned Princess Leia. And Tony Abbott, Darth Vader. John Howard is indistinguishable from himself as Yoda, dispensing his wisdom, like so much toilet tissue; happily, he’s jettisoned before too long. (Well, eventually. If only it’d been sooner.) Gina The Hutt rates a mention but, mercifully, doesn’t show herself. Children, it used to be cruelly recited, by elder smote stick than carrot, should be seen, but not heard. How sweet it would be if she was neither. As it is, she may dig big, black holes (in both senses) but doesn’t look like disappearing into one any time soon.

The Jamie “Love Me Tender (Not)!” Packer and Fatty O’Barrell make appearances in Barangaroo, a mini-me musical in its own right which draws on classics from that genre. Speaking of musicals, Julia has become Mary Poppins and Josh Quong Tart, the new recruit, fronts up as Bill “Van Dyke” Shorten, turning on his best razzamatazz for a crack at the top job.

All of the above is classic Wharf Revue shtick; a sharpened, more sophisticated take on the uni revue. Richly satirical. And distinguished by brilliant, studied impersonations. But something new is afoot this year, which may challenge the expectations of diehard fans. The refugee sketch bites like a rabid roddy and the almost documentary character study (or assassination) of self-serving Qantas big cheese Alan Joyce sticks him with the kind of cold, hard, steel blade with which he’s knifed the brand, tearing it from it’s long and dearly held status as a loved and trusted friend and relegating to the infamy of just another greedy corporation that’s forgotten its mission. Both of these betray a bitterness and twistedness that ups the ante from satire, parody and sarcasm to something more sinister.

I suspect the humour has gotten darker because there’s only so much even professional humorists can take, before they, too, succumb to telling it like it really is, which isn’t always pretty; nor can it always be sweetened with laughs. Scott’s one-man opus, Garden Of Earthly Delights, is a blasting indictment of man’s dominion and what it’s done to the planet and takes on a similarly caustic tone. Forsythe’s calling of Slipper outs all the tediously sordid detail of the former speaker’s textual debacle, rivalled only by Warney’s, for sheer, creepy inanity and poor judgement. This, too, seemed more despairing, in essence, than a mere vehicle for a jibe. In this respect, it seems the team hasn’t only departed the galaxy, but has made another departure; whether it’s in the writing, or by dint of Biggins’ direction, or both, isn’t completely discernible.

Barry Searle, Scott Fisher and Todd Decker have done a superlative job on sets and costumes and video production, respectively. Margaret Aston is a dab hand with wigs. David Bergman’s sound, too, is dynamic. All of these elements enhance the blood, sweat and tears of the performers. For I can only but imagine and speculate upon the investment of energy and craft required to turn out the revue year, after year, after year, with no loss of quality.

Maybe only Matt Groening can rival it.

The details: Red Wharf: Beyond The Rings Of Satire plays STC’s Wharf 1 theatre until December 22. Tickets on the company website.

Drew Forsythe, Amanda Bishop and Josh Quong Tart (Pic: Tracey Schramm)
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