THEATRE

Frank Barnes

With the holiday and Festival season coming up there are many great shows on the horizon. Since last edition I have had the pleasure of the best Belvoir show of the year, Eamon Flack’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov.

It was a brilliantly conceived Aussiefied version which matches beautifully the Andre Upton version of The Present, also by Chekhov. Both were great productions of rarely-performed plays and gave us performances from some great artists.

The Sydney Theatre Company is about to present its final show for this season, King Lear with Geoffrey Rush, having just finished a wonderful production of Shaw’s Arms and The Man. Also, currently playing at the STC is Orlando, a valiant take of Virginia Woolf’s strange story of her relationship with Vita Sackville-West. It doesn’t quite work but has a terrific central performance by Jacqueline McKenzie.

But I want to finish the year looking at theatre purely as entertainment and, in this case, through what seems like a newish genre of circus/burlesque/cabaret.

While I say it is newish it is, of course, rather oldish. “Bread and circuses” has been a staple of entertainment for many centuries, often established by governments. I suspect the renaissance was started by Cirque de Soleil becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

Some years ago, Sydneysiders were introduced to the Spiegeltent. One of the first shows was the wonderful Smoke and Mirrors starring iOTA and directed by Craig Ilott. At the same time, La Soiree was playing at the Opera House and packing them in.

The mixture of cabaret, circus and burlesque combining wild comedy with the excitement of spectacular circus (and a bar) with music caught the imagination of young Sydney audiences. Because the magic occurs on a circular stage that is only 2m in diameter the audience feels it can almost touch the performers.

The structures of the shows remind me of a bus tour of Harlem in New York where, apart from the tour guide commenting relentlessly on the property market, we visited a church service that had everything you would expect from it: a preacher who bible thumps like in the movies, a choir and a congregation of people dressed to the nines with the women in enormous flowery hats.

The service went on for hours (I didn’t) with a sort of DJ playing a humming sort of music that very gradually increased in rhythm, volume and excitement. By the time of the “surprise” visit from the local politician (they have no problem preaching party politics) the place was humming and the congregation getting to their feet and professing. It was completely directed and controlled.

These shows are exactly the same but much greater fun. La Clique with “the man in the bath”, Empire, Club Swizzle and Absinthe all follow the same pattern although I found the comedians in Absinthe tasteless and unfunny. During the Sydney Festival we will see a new show, Blanc de Blanc, at the Opera House.

Velvet

Creator and director, Craig Ilott
The Studio
Sydney Opera House

Velvet is one of the best of the cabaret/circus/burlesque genre as it takes the concept, adds a new dimension of disco to the mix and gives the show a storyline. There is a diva as leading lady — the divine Marcia Hines who can still belt out a song like no other. The other main performer is a relative newcomer, Brendan Maclean, a quirky performer who also knows how to belt out a song (keep an eye out for him).

To a background of pop and disco favourites such as “If You Could Read My Mind”, “Shake Your Groove Thing”. “It’s Raining Men” and many more, the circus performers take the show along.

Mirko Kockenberger is a handstand acrobat from Germany, Stephen Williams is a locally trained aerialist with amazing strength, Emma Goh is also locally trained and a dancer and aerialist. The stripper from New Orleans, Perle Noire, supplies the burlesque and the big audience pleaser is Craig Reid a.k.a. “The Incredible Hula Boy” from Scotland. He is a largish, very camp hoop performer from Scotland. Apart from his performing skills he had the audience crying with laughter as his “multi-coloured-with-lights” hoops became more and more difficult to manage. He almost stole the show.

The two backup singers, Chaska Halliday and Rechelle Mansour, are integral to the show’s success and are also set for big futures. It is all held together by the DJ Joe Accaria. With a great set and costumes designed by James Browne and extraordinary lighting from Matthew Marshall this was 90 minutes of escapist joy, the ultimate in bread and circuses.

The Wharf Revue

Drew Forsythe on stage

Celebrating 15 Years
Written and Created By Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and
Phillip Scott
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf 1

I am one of the lucky few who have seen all 15 Wharf Revues. I was so pleased when the STC started the Revue, as being a Life Member of New Theatre I was aware of the need for the satire, sadly missing since the demise of the Phillip Street Theatre which had run revues for 17 years.

Previous to that there was only The New, and the last I remember from that was “It’s Time to Boil Billy” (Billy being McMahon).

The first Wharf Revue only ran for a few performances but has now become such an institution that this year, after an extensive regional tour, it was booked out before it opened.

And open it did with Phil Scott as John Howard reminding us that John and Janette actually had sex. Much of the show consisted of sketches from the past that reminded us of the brilliance of these National Treasures as they skewered politicians.

Scott’s Howard (and all of the others) is done without makeup but by pouting his lower lip and using his voice and walking like him Scott captures the former prime minister. This is the players’ secret weapon and why they are able to change characters so quickly.

Unlike in the early days they are aided and abetted by excellent video, done by Todd Decker. Bunnings ads, Geoffrey Robertson welcoming us to The Wharf, Gina and Clive (Forsythe and Biggins) in the iconic scene from Titanic, Amanda Bishop (who looks to be a permanent member of the team) as Emma Alberici and Annabel Crabb were all video sketches, thus giving the stage performers time to catch their breath and change.

Bishop has been a great addition to the lineup. The fourth wheel has traditionally been a woman who has usually stayed for two or three years but Bishop has now been there five years.

She is a terrific actress as well as a trained opera singer. Her Julia Gillard is now legendary and engendered both groans and cheers from the audience. But she has now added Julie Bishop as well as Helen Clark in The Helen Clark Four (a take on Dave Brubeck) in one of the funniest sketches. She and Phil Scott doing The Phantom with her being Julia and Scott doing the Phantom rising in Rudd Never Dies. This is after The Culling Season, the title of which is enough to make me laugh.

And laugh, scream, clap and cry I did for the full 90 minutes as Forsythe does a James Joyce delivery by Alan Joyce and his corporate rise to being the head of Qantas. Biggins does a similar brilliant job with his Latham Diaries in the form of Benjamin Britten. Forsythe and Biggins as Keating and Hawke in a retirement village, Biggins as Abbott (tongue working overtime as the Lizard of Oz) and Forsythe as the rapping Pyne the Fixer are some of the other highlights. Turnbull is skewered by Biggins as they do a musical Les Liberales, and they finish with the best Goon Show I have seen.

I was about to get on my feet for a standing ovation when they came back on stage and sang the final song from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow”, showing how they can spin from one moment to the other, in this case bringing me to tears.

This was most definitely the best ever, and I suggest you get onto the Sydney Theatre Company website now and book your tickets immediately for the 2016 Revue in either Sydney or one of the regional shows.

Frank Barnes is retired in Paradise and would like to thank you for reading my drivel and wish you a great holiday. And I hope you get to see lots of shows.