Debt-Defying Acts: The Eighteenth Wharf Revue

‘The best thing of its kind in world history’ I began to call it a while back, having for nine years followed it round country towns and forced Bob Carr, Mike Rann, Bill Shorten, Nathan Rees, Barry Jones, Marieke Hardy and lesser dignitaries to see it beside me, and beseeched in vain Tony Abbott, who always at the last minute pulled out for ‘a family occasion, mate, sorry,’  all thereby induced, at last, though kicking and struggling, into a great night of theatre.

All who see it share my view, and this is the best of the eighteen.

Rudd as the Phantom of the Opera, half-masked and singing magnificently, tempts Gillard into his cobwebbed basement and by mesmerism and high operatic soliloquy (‘The man who speaks in Mandarin is back!’) asserts his plan, after chaining her up, of a kingdom regained. Rupert Murdoch as Lear, dividing among among two thankless children, James and Elizabeth, and his beloved foundling Rebekah, whose tawny tumbling hair he sombrely unlooses, his dusty, tumbledown, bickering empire, is interrupted by the gorgeous Oriental kick-boxer Wendi Deng, pregnant now and proclaiming amid her crouching-tiger twirls and slaps  her masterplan, aha, for a further dynasty in the East. Barry O’Farrell, the new Marshall in town, is vamped, once again, by the washed-up dance-hall chanteuse ‘Kitty’ Keneally, legs parted and huskily singing, and considers well her hip-shaking offer of Catholic Socialism once more.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating plot in wheelchairs in their nursing home to work the numbers in the dementia wing and thereby facilitate the reformist restructuring of the bingo and carpet bowls. Ghadafi as Groucho sings ‘Libya, oh Libya, have you been to Libya’; and so on. Music by Rodgers, Lloyd Webber, Bratton, Berlin, Schonberg, Elgar and, occasionally Phillip Scott, himself a composer and lyricist of Sondheim standard, fill out ninety minutes with perhaps three hundred laughs and achieves within ten minutes that particular kind of intellectual-discovery thrill of the brain engaged at the top of its beck in a body helpless with laughter that was there, I guess, in Beyond The Fringe and a sketch or two of Monte Python and a page or two of Private Eye but not, I think, too often thereafter.

Some Sydneysiders have become accustomed to Scotty, Drew Forsythe and Jonathan Biggins, the stars and co-auteurs of this yearly Stoppard-standard feast, and do not fully appreciate the enormity of what they manage to sling together, in just two weeks of rehearsal and writing, in shows so topical that governments usually fall mid-run (Howard, Iemma, Rees, Bush, majority Gillard Labor) and occasion minor script changes (Ghadafi, buoyantly alive at the Gosford opening, now seems too curtly dealt with, like a swatted mosquito), but I have not. They have become over time, as I call it, ‘my spare religion’, and I see each show about thirteen times, frogmarching octogenarian recalcitrants to matinees and jabbing them awake.

Biggins’s  Brown and Keating, Scotty’s Howard and Rudd, Drew Forsythe’s Downer, Katter and Hawke loom large now in Australia’s race memory, and their Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gilbert and Sullivan pastiches are without peer. And their French Revolution sketch, a deft summation in  Clouzot accents and Les Miz anthems of how the Left stuffed up in only two hundred years, betters just about everything said on the subject since Edmund Burke.

And Amanda Bishop, their present co-star, outstrips, if that’s the verb I want, even Valerie Bader her predecessor. Her Keneally, Brooks, Berejiklian, Deng, Filipino nurse and Gillard are more than well-carved marionettes. She inhabits them, and she sings as well as Streisand and Sutherland and dances like Cyd Charisse. I recall her as Marilyn Monroe in a play reading I co-wrote, and the moment when she sang unaccompanied in Monroe’s breathy voice ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ and the audience froze, amazed, and almost stricken, by primal recognition. She may be the best Australian actress of the generation between Judy Davis and Mia Wasikowska; or not. But she is one for the ages and she should be seen.

Biggins directs with his usual Mel Brooks chaotic pertinacity, the lighting is excellent, and the fourteen costume changes in the last two minutes are hair-raising. Forsythe sings as well as Robeson, Johnny Cash and, when required, Kamahl. And Scotty bathes the theatre in lush, immortal, temulous piano, singing quite well too, when required, as well as, say, Randy Newman.

If you think I exaggerate, go see it.

You will almost certainly find me there.