By Liam McLoughlin 19/12/2018
The familiar awfulness of Australian politics is clearly a curse but the familiarity of the revue itself is a mixed blessing.
‘My fellow irrelevant Australians… As you know I do like to keep a very low public profile. There are generations born in this country who have no idea what a real leader actually looks like. I thought I’d pop in to remind them.’
So began the comic highpoint of this year’s Wharf Revue, in which Jonathan Biggins channelled Paul Keating’s peerless combination of self-satisfaction, a sneering rapier-like wit, and bewildering likeability, to land blow after blow on members of this clearance sale of a Coalition Government. He described Tony Abbott as a ‘bloke who thought misogyny was his teacher in third class’ and said when the far right of the Liberal Party drank the Kool-Aid, ‘Dutton went back for seconds’.
Back in the mid-2000s, the real Paul Keating watched multiple performances of the musical Keating! because, well, he couldn’t help himself (the random night I attended at Belvoir St, he was, of course, in the audience). Don’t be surprised if, thanks to this hilarious monologue, every second performance he takes a break from auto-erotic acts over at Barangaroo and strolls around the corner to the Roslyn Packer Theatre to finish himself off.
Keeping pace with the number of Australian Prime Ministers since last Tuesday, Déjà Revue marks the 18th Wharf Revue. It follows previous outings such as Sunday in Iraq with George in 2003 and Open for Business in 2014. Referencing Turnbull’s Veepgaffe, this year’s production is advertised as ‘continuity with change’. There’s continuity with Revue co-founders Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe reprising their impressions of Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Pauline Hanson, and Donald Trump and belting out appropriated showtunes mocking our current clown harvest. There’s change with a new musical director, Andrew Worboys, as stalwart Phil Scott steps away, and a new female lead, Rachel Beck.
Much to Keating’s disappointment, there are highlights in this show apart from him. Beck’s gorgeous singing voice when playing Malcontent in A Pantomime of a Once Principled Boy comes to mind as does Biggins’ loping-tongue-lolling-lifesaver-bonneted Mother Abbott. The Plastic Wrap is a rapid-fire Stomp-inspired ‘response to Craig Reucassel’s alarmist rant’ in the War on Waste, with lines like ‘as plastic surgeons we’ll glad wrap the Earth’. Infrastructure is a superb satire of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s development disasters. ‘Building tomorrow’s Sydney tomorrow’, Beck’s Gladys sings a catchy number about building 'one foot a day’ of the light rail to Kensington while holding a lollipop sign with a twist (both sides say stop). And thankfully, The Book of Cormann is every bit as good as you would hope.
The problem with this show is right there in the title: Déjà Revue. Presumably designed as a dig at the way our pollies are stuck in a never-ending spin cycle of leadership coups, political cowardice, and cronyism, it also functions as an apt dig at the revue itself.
Some of this recycling is good for the comedic environment. Audiences have seen these impressions many times before, but judging by their eagre laughs before a word is said, they can’t get enough. Skits which worked well on the night including a Harvey Norman parody ad and a Greens dance number seemed fresh but are in fact somewhat similar to skits from the 2014 revue.
Other familiar aspects should be reduced or eliminated altogether. It’s about time comedians stopped writing for tawdry laughs about women’s pubic hair, poofs, and fairies. Such jokes still get giggles among certain crowds, but that certainly doesn’t mean they should be written.
And do we really need yet another Trump impression? If so, we certainly don’t need to devote what felt like the longest section of Australia’s flagship satirical live show to obvious jokes rehashing Trump’s exponential idiocies. Of course, the line about Trump setting up a game of Pokémon GO with Kim Jong-un is excepted.
It’s this obsession with personal foibles that points to a bigger problem with the Wharf Revue. It’s crowd-pleasing and brilliant in parts, but with refugees and Indigenous Australians in cages, fascism on the march abroad and at home, and the natural world collapsing all around us, we need satire which does more than mock Pauline Hanson’s poor English-speaking skills or joke about how pious farmers didn’t like that Barnaby Joyce had ‘planted his seed’.
In recent years young Australian satirists like Nakkiah Lui, Briggs, Aamer Rahman, and Zoe Coombs Marr have targeted the white supremacist patriarchy which governs Australian politics and public culture. It would be great to see their influence filter into work such as the Wharf Revue, but perhaps that’s like hoping to find M & M’s in a tub of Homebrand vanilla ice cream.
British comedian Peter Cook is often quoted as praising ‘those wonderful Berlin Cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’.
The impotence of even the sharpest satire to slow or reverse political destruction may be so, but isn’t it still worth trying?
3 ½ stars ★★★☆
The Wharf Revue 2018: Déjà Revue by Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe
Cast: Rachel Beck, Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Douglas Hansell, and Andrew Worboys.
Designer: Charles Davis
Musical Director: Andrew Worboys
Lighting Designer: Matt Cox
Sound and Video Designer: David Bergman
13 November-15 December 2018
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay