Friendship’s the thing in Muriel’s Wedding.
Friendship, and self respect.
And credit card fraud…
Though you know what they say: one girl’s fraud is another’s opportunity.
How to explain our enduring affection for semi-delusional, slightly subversive, small-time criminal, Muriel Heslop?
It’s misleading to use a word like ‘Loser’ to describe her, since it suggests she’s somehow in the race. And she’s not. In her hometown of Porpoise Spit, she’s at the bottom of the food chain. Muriel Heslop is nothing: and things are about to get much worse.
But she’s an unlikely heroine.
Though she caught the bloody bouquet.
Everything about this show is phenomenally good: Gabriela Tylesova’s saturated Design-world (Costume, Set and Projections); the syncopated sensationally singable score from Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall; P. J. Hogan’s adaptation of his original (brilliant) script (which includes some inspired adjustments); Andrew Hallsworth’s deft, inventive choreography, so pervasive it grounds the piece in its own outrageous, idiosyncratic world.
The whole is steered along the coast, from Porpoise Spit to Sydney, by Director Simon Phillips.
With a piece as familiar as Muriel’s Wedding, it would be easy to assume a well-intentioned, slightly flat version of a pretty-well-perfect original, but this is no mere replication. In fact, this newest incarnation feels like it’s burst out of the screen and come to life: just that much louder, that much larger, that much livelier.
With a piece as familiar as Muriel’s Wedding, it would be easy to assume a well-intentioned, slightly flat version of a pretty-well-perfect original, but this is no mere replication.
Not least because Natalie Abbott goes the full Muriel. She’s the total package, with a belt so powerful you know she’ll win through. There’s a radiance to her voice that belies the dumpy frocks she’s wearing and confirms that she is the one true Muriel:
“Are you Muriel Heslop?” asks Rhonda (Stefanie Jones is wonderful)
“No,” replies Muriel
“Yes, you are!” Rhonda insists.
“I dunno why, you just are.”
Writer P.J. Hogan has updated the story to ‘now’. Where 90s Muriel sought affirmation in marriage, now she seeks fame – or ‘celebrity’ – in the vacuity of social media. It’s on the internet that Muriel finds her Stranger, Perfect Stranger, Alexander Shkuratov (Stephen Madsen). We first see him in a choreographic gem from Hallsworth, a deconstruction and reshaping of the movements of the swimming team in Life is a Competition, which culminates in the emergence of Shkuratov, like a merman Esther Williams rising from the sea, or, in this case, pool.
P.J. Hogan’s second (inspired) adjustment is to cast the Nordic Four, ABBA, the Ikea Icebergs themselves, as a sort of Greek (fine! Swedish) Chorus: does it get any better than that? It does not. So Agnetha (Jaime Hadwen), Benny (Evan Lever), Björn (Maxwell Simon) and Anni-Frid (Laura Bunting) roam free, with a different costuming concept at nearly every intervention.
The curtain opens on huge panels in saturated colours; blues, greens, a splash of puce. I’m thinking Blue Lagoon, Envy Jade, Passion Pink: an absurdist drama by Wattyl Paints! It’s a wonderfully crisp background to play against and there’s a feeling of light and space and clarity.
The panels will move in and out, not just tightening the space from the sides, but sometimes from above and below, narrowing the ‘screen’ as if the aspect ratio were changing from intimate close-up to panoramic wide-shot. It’s a really clever cinematic approximation.
Muriel sits beautifully in Her Majesty’s, which is neither too big nor too small, but just right!
The proscenium is adorned with great big screens disguised as iPads for live projections during the show. These only really come into their own in the second half: with Muriel’s job, snapping pictures of eager Instagrammers having intimate encounters with cardboard cut-out celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift and Barak Obama; with the live-stream wedding; with Muriel as an ‘influencer’ to 3 million followers. Until then, not being strongly threaded back through the first half, they’re a bit clunky.
Otherwise, it’s tacky, it’s kitsch, it’s fabulous design – the bridal store a stand out – and the attention to detail is exemplary, a trait that is replicated in the choreography, and the score.
Familiar lines, familiar characters are met with laughs of recognition: Joanie’s slyly impressed “You’re terrible Muriel!” is met with applause nearly every time she utters the words.
Tania Degano (Christie Whelan Browne) is just as petty, just as vicious as you remember, and her evil minions (Rachel Cole, Catty Hamilton, Imogen Moore) deserve the shallow lives that surely await them (“don’t take it personal”).
David James is Muriel’s crooked Dad, councillor Bill “you can’t stop progress” Heslop: it’s a bulldozer performance. Played against a huge scale model of the town, his signature song, Progress is fantastic-bombastic.
Jarrod Griffiths is a dogged Brice Nobes, parking inspector and suitor to Muriel.
Most importantly, the beanbag is retained for the outrageously funny date scene between he and Muriel: never was virginity nearly lost with such joyful hilarity and abandon.
The story arc of sad, bewildered Betty Heslop (Pippa Grandison) creating her own illusion of Muriel’s Wedding, was one of the great gut-punches of the original. Here it’s not so brutal, folded into an ABBA dream of her own: a vision of snow and ash and lost love that links the women together in a way that’s profoundly moving.
Muriel’s response to Betty’s death, the haunting My Mother (Eulogy), a quartet she shares with her siblings, is unsparing of both herself and her father.
P.J. Hogan has talked about how he filmed parts of the action all those years ago, from just over Muriel’s shoulder, so that we experienced the hurts and slights she suffered as she did, ensuring we stayed firmly on her side. That intimate empathy is replaced with songs. And in Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, Muriel struck gold.
Like Hogan, the musicians grew up in regional Queensland and they’ve clearly relished the opportunity to revisit. There are songs that twist style to match character with a specificity that’s slightly disconcerting. Councillor Heslop’s Progress, for example, “is supposed to sound like a Rolling Stones tribute act playing in Twin Towns casino,” reflects Miller-Heidke in the program, and it probably does.
From Joanie (Manon Gunderson-Briggs), Perry (Jacob Warner) and Malcolm (Caleb Vines) for example, the other Heslop kids, or “useless bunch of no hopers!”, they’ve extracted a ‘song’ (Meet the Heslops), a reconstructed-deconstruction (that parallels Hallsworth’s choreographic choices) contrived largely from the oohs, aaahs, grunts and wow!s they eject while watching the cricket on TV.
So England has Juliet and Rosamund and Lady Macbeth; piss off! we’ve got Muriel!
Given the way Hogan critiques social media, Miller-Heidke was especially perfect for Muriel. This is the woman who wrote Are You f*cking kidding me, the Facebook song.
There are one or two too many ‘inward Muriel’ songs throughout. By the time we reach Rhonda’s confrontation with Muriel and the ‘defrocking’ in the Bridal shop, we’ve almost forgotten that driving self-hatred, that need to make herself ‘better’, so the messy “I’m not nothing/Why can’t it be me?” speech doesn’t quite come to fulfillment.
At the curtain, like the parting of the Red Sea, the cast move aside to allow a radiant Muriel to walk towards us.
In transformation movies, there’s always a make-over: the plain girl ditches the glasses and she’s been pretty all along; the plump one nearly dies of something unnameable, but the kilos jump ship. Muriel isn’t like that. Sure, her clothes are a bit more comfortable, her hair a bit less inclined to rebel, but the Murielness of Muriel is unassailable, and complete.
I had wondered how much the enduring spirit of Muriel owed to Toni Collette’s performance rather than the character itself. And it’s true that Abbott’s performance carries Toni Collette’s within it, and maybe Maggie McKenna’s; just as Stefanie Jones’ performance carries Rachel Griffith’s Rhonda, and Madeleine Jones’. And that’s how it should be. So England has Juliet and Rosamund and Lady Macbeth; piss off! We’ve got Muriel!
Disclaimer: David James, who appears in this production, is a relative of the reviewer.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne