Reviews, Stage

The Wharf Revue 2015: Celebrating 15 years (Sydney)

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The Wharf Revue has been described, in the past, as “equal opportunity satire”. No major political figure escapes the sharp pens (and often sharper impersonations) of the creative team: Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott. But although we get Keating, Hawke and even Latham, there’s a notable lack of current Labor MPs in this year’s Revue. What can you do when they’re just not that funny? Create an entire sketch around Bill Shorten’s zingers?
The Revue is a beloved Sydney Theatre Company institution which has no equivalent anywhere else in the country. This year’s Revue has already been touring since August and its two-month season at the Wharf 1 Theatre is completely sold out. So what better time to take a quick look back than its 15th anniversary?
The majority of this year’s production is new material, but it has a “greatest hits” element, with returning favourites like “Rudd Never Dies” — with Scott as Kevin Rudd/The Phantom of the Opera and Amanda Bishop as Julia Gillard. That sketch still wins plenty of laughs, not least because of Bishop’s hilarious vocal performance and spot-on Gillard impersonation. There’s also the very welcome return of a sketch featuring Forsythe as an ageing Bob Hawke and Biggins as Paul Keating (one of his best impersonations) plotting an overthrow of their nursing home. But others, like “Howard’s Bunker” — with Scott as a Fuhrer-esque John Howard in the dying days of his government — aren’t as up-to-the-minute as they should be (I’m not sure we still find Alexander Downer quite so funny).
The Revue format has always been a throwback to Australia’s vaudevillian traditions, applying them to the latest happenings on Australia’s political landscape. It brings a touch of lightness and irreverence to our cultural spaces, and it’s surprising that there isn’t similar work happening at other Australian theatre companies.
The team has always offered up a combination of intelligent satire alongside cheap, below-the-belt parodies. But there are a few sketches in this year’s show which hit below the belt without being quite smart enough — or funny enough — to justify the cheap shots about the politicians’ appearance, mannerisms or race. There’s also a joke about former Hey Dad star Robert Hughes which teeters right on the edge of good taste and maybe should have been ditched.
But there is some excellent new material — Drew Forsythe is a riot as Alan ‘James’ Joyce, flawlessly delivering a tricky Joyce-esque monologue all about Qantas’ obstacles. There’s a great video with Bishop as Jacqui Lambie, pitching her ideas for her constituents, and a sketch about a leadership spill in the quickly-shrinking Palmer United Party is brilliantly funny (even if it could do without Scott’s cringe-worthy Dio Wang impersonation). And a number from Scott as a tutu-clad former Arts Minister George Brandis draws plenty of knowing laughs — and gives him a chance to demonstrate what an “excellent” pianist he really is.
All up, it’s a bit of a mixed bunch. Although a few sketches miss their mark, the team still nail plenty of targets.
But you’ve got to wonder how long Biggins, Forsythe and Scott can go on as the only major keepers of this theatrical flame. They’ve brought plenty of other performers into the fold as collaborators, but there’s probably new satirical ground that could be covered in coming years with the help of some fresh faces. They are the masters, and it’s time for them to take on some apprentices.
[box]The Wharf Revue is at Wharf 1 Theatre until December 19. Photo by Brett Boardman[/box]

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