Thursday 16 June 2016

Adelaide Cabaret Festival review: 'The Wharf Revue: Celebrating 15 Years'

Her Majesty’s Theatre, 15–18 June 2016. Written and devised by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, and Phillip Scott. Performed by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott, and Amanda Bishop. Musical direction by Phillip Scott.

Photo: Brett Boardman

My first taste of the venerable Wharf Revue was via their 2011 show, Debt Defying Acts. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd merry-go-round was in its second rotation; the highlight of the evening was a prophetic sketch called ‘Rudd Never Dies’, which transformed the verbose Queenslander into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom. To think the prime ministership has changed hands three times since then!

Rudd Never Dies is one of many past glories revisited in this summa of the Revue’s nonpartisan political satire, a commemoration of 21 shows and 15 years of continuous service to the Australian public that began, according to legend, on the back of a coaster at the end of Sydney’s Wharf 1. This is an altogether different beast to Debt Defying Acts: slicker and somewhat blunted, on account of the age of most of the material, while David Bergman’s high-powered sound and video designs add a new layer of polish.

‘Howard’s Bunker’, from 2007’s Beware of the Dogma, is the show’s inauspicious opener, whiplashing the audience back to the far-distant demise of the Howard government through that overfamiliar parodic device, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film about Hitler’s last days, Downfall. Only the stomach-turning references to the sex life of John (Phillip Scott) and Janette (Amanda Bishop) are able to raise a titter over the sound of a dud coming to a soft landing.

Other older sketches still detonate on impact, for example Drew Forsythe’s Alan/James Joyce mash-up from 2012’s Red Wharf, the Irish-born Qantas CEO’s self-serving corporate speak rendered in the labyrinthine prose of the modernist author of Ulysses. It’s a wonderful idea, sheeted home by Forsythe’s fruity delivery and freight train-like momentum. Almost as good is The Latham Diaries, a tailcoated Jonathan Biggins performing, in the arch manner of a modern chamber opera, excerpts from the former Labor leader’s infamous political memoir. As elsewhere, Scott, a gifted pianist, provides dexterous accompaniment.    

The new sketches, on the whole, don’t work as well, too many tricks missed and unfunny ad hominem jabs landing below the belt (the fat gags, especially, come relentlessly, and Clive Palmer isn’t the only target). In the case of a set piece that depicts the Palmer United Party as a farcical series of phone calls between its only members, Palmer (Biggins) and Dio Wang (Scott), a good joke is squandered by Scott’s tasteless impersonation of Wang. Forsythe’s ‘Chrissie Pyne Rap’—‘I’m a fixer!’—ought to produce a perfect storm of absurdity in its bringing together of Pyne’s noted effeteness and the posturing masculinity of hip-hop but it fails to come alive, undone in part by the unintelligibility of its lyrics.   

Interspersed among these sketches are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos by Jacqui Lambie, Annabel Crabb, Emma Alberici, and Leigh Sales, each exquisitely captured by Bishop in short video segments. Bishop’s Lambie—all taut skin, heroic bluster, and infinitely expandable vowels—cries out for the tribute of full sketch treatment. Popular culture is mined in ‘Greek Lightning’, which brilliantly retools the musical Grease as a Eurovision-style takedown of the politics of austerity, and in a search for the mythic ABC Charter rendered in the form of a Goons Show sketch. 

While the latter showcases the ensemble’s splendid comic and vocal ranges, it does highlight the need for Biggins, Forsythe and Scott to drastically update their cultural reference points—although slyly acknowledged, there is an unmistakable creakiness present in this 15-year commemoration; even some boomers, I imagine, will be left scratching their heads at a sketch that riffs on Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.

The extended set piece ‘Les Liberables’ exposes another problem: how to satirise Malcolm Turnbull who, as yet, has shown himself to be beyond even the Revue’s formidable powers of imitation (Abbott is not so lucky—Biggins’ reptilian, cowboy-gaited caricature is marvelous). It remains to be seen whether Turnbull’s prime ministership will endure long enough for Forsythe to work up something with a little more bite.             

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