The Big Con ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Big Con

The Big Con by Guy Rundle, directed by Aubrey Mellor and Denis Moore, with Max Gillies and Eddie Perfect. Malthouse Theatre until April 3.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about political satire. Is it merely a comforting release that assures us (the Right - or in this case, the Left - Minded) that we are superior to those we dislike? Might it not be, in some way, inherently conservative, for all its assumption of subversiveness?

I wonder if, rather than provoking thought, satire might simply confirm one's beliefs. George Bush's surreal approach to the English language might be amusing, but does mocking it make any difference? After all, his hokiness is a large part of his appeal in the fundamentalist heartland; and sneering at it just proves that those chardonnay-sipping elites are, well, elitist.

On the other hand, laughter is a human survival technique. Witness the black humour that flourished in Poland under Communist rule, or Jewish comedy. Making jokes about things that would otherwise make one despair is a vital expression of human defiance. The Big Con is intelligent enough to generate that kind of vitality, but at the end of the evening, I found that ambivalence nagging me. Perhaps I like my satire very black indeed.

The Big Con is impression comedy, familiar to those of us old enough to remember Max Gillies' television shows in the 1980s. The conceit is that we are at a right wing convention hosted by the Centre for Independent Analysis (rather suspiciously like our own right wing think tank the Centre for Independent Studies but with the acronym CIA, which is emblazoned either side of the red velvet curtains).

Gillies has teamed up with comic cabaret crooner Eddie Perfect, complete with Australian Idol hair moussed up into an improbable fin on top of his head, and a footballer's tuxedo. He has the nasal pop star delivery and dazzlingly vacuous smile down pat, and a selection of songs which grow steadily bleaker as the evening wears on. Numbers like "Don't be so Damn September 10" or a happy holiday tune about the joys of Guantanamo Bay are coolly savage attacks on the cynical pragmatism of our times.

It is, as Barry Humphries might have it, a "very nice night's entertainment". The show works well in the cavernous Merlin Theatre, and Guy Rundle's script is pointed and wittily informed. Gillies skewers all the usual suspects - Alan Jones, Rupert Murdoch, Phil Ruddock and, in a portrayal of eerily accurate grotesquerie I found almost unwatchable, John Howard. I enjoyed especially the appearance of Keith Windschuttle, the revisionist historian, and the curiously likeable portrait of Amanda Vanstone, on tour with her show Amandatory Detention. Perhaps the most successful sketch is a surprise appearance by Tony Soprano, working some PR for the US government.

The satire encompasses its audience, and is almost as critical of the homilies of the Left as it is of those of the Right. Human folly is not, after all, confined to any particular ideological stripe. At times (I think this comment is the No. 1 sin of theatre reviewers, but hell, sometimes you have to say it) I thought the script was a bit wordy, and the comedy sagged. Sometimes it was derivative (George Bush's line, "My fellow electricians" is a direct steal from the Dead Ringers gag "My fellow watermelons").

Comedy of this kind is of the moment, dating as quickly as yesterday's papers, and necessarily parochial. I had a good time, for all my afterthoughts, and so did the full-house crowd; the two and a half hours whizzed by. It might only be speaking to the converted, and it didn't leave me with any powerful impressions which stayed to haunt me later; but, as that old cartoon has it, sometimes you've just got to laugh.

Picture: Max Gillies as Phillip Ruddock

Malthouse Theatre

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