Review: Babes in the Wood / Tomfoolery ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Babes in the Wood / Tomfoolery

Babes in the Wood by Tom Wright, directed by Michael Kantor. Music by Iain Grandage, design by Anna Tregloan, lighting by Paul Jackson, choreography by Kate Denborough, sound design David Franzke, dramaturgy by Maryanne Lynch. With Caroline Craig, Diana Emry, Julie Forsythe, Max Gillies, Francis Greenslade, Eddie Perfect and Lucy Taylor. Malthouse Theatre until December 3.

Tomfoolery: The Words and Music of Tom Lehrer, adapted by Cameron MacKintosh and Robin Ray, directed by Ross Coleman and Simon Phillips. Lighting design by Matt Scott, design by Gabriela Tylesova. With Rhonda Burchmore, Mitchell Butel, Gerry Connolly, Bert Labonte and Melissa Madden-Gray. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until December 16.

'Tis the season to be decked out in tinsel, or so the supermarket tells me. TN's Scroogish instincts means that she thinks the Christmas season begins in a blinding panic about two days before Christmas Eve: but, luckily, there is always the Christmas panto to jerk me into the compulsory state of jolliness and goodwill &c towards my fellow man. This year the Malthouse is larking about with Babes in the Wood.

I haven't had a good history with Michael Kantor's collaborations with Tom Wright, but then, I missed the 2003 premiere of Babes in the Wood, Wright's wonderful pantomime set (kind of) during the Boer War. Before I discuss it, it's probably worth revisiting some of the conventions of the English pantomime, which are here exploited with such joie de vivre.

The traditional Christmas panto is a children's entertainment that stems back to the 1700s, and many of its established tropes were introduced by the famous British clown Joseph Grimaldi in the early 1800s. They evolved from a number of elements: Commedia dell'arte, ballets-pantomimes - which themselves have histories stretching back to Roman traditions of masked clowning performed by a dancer called Pantomimus - and the English Harlequinade. These traditions later collided with variety, introducing song and dance routines and vulgar jokes to amuse the adults who are accompanying their young charges.

It is always based, sometimes very loosely, on a fairy tale - Cinderella, Dick Whittington and Babes in the Wood are all favourite themes. Essential characters include the Dame (who is always a cross-dressing man), the Principle Boy (always a pretty girl in tights), and actors in unconvincing animal costumes. The plot always features a villain and a misused innocent, and a romance involving the Principle Girl (who is actually a girl) and the Principle Boy.

A basic feature is also audience participation, actively elicited by the cast, which often revolves around the stock jokes. There is always a scene where someone hides behind someone else, so the audience will shout out "He's behind you!"; and there is always an argument, where one side says (with the audience) "Oh, yes he is!" and the other, "Oh, no, he isn't!"

Tom Wright's version of Babes in the Wood sedulously observes all the proper conventions, and he adds on a kind of meta-theatrical context: the conceit of the production is that we are also watching a comic plot about the ragtag colonial theatre company that is presenting the panto. The Dame (Max Gillies, in fine fig), is tempestuously and not always faithfully married to the wicked kangaroo (Julie Forsythe).

Like a rather hilariously intoxicated porcupine, Babes in the Wood bristles with cheerful malice, leaving barbs in pretty much everyone. (Notoriously in this production, there is an Eddie Perfect song about Steve Irwin and Germaine Greer called "Let that stingray of love pierce your heart", with a chorus of dancing stingrays that obligingly help Irwin and Greer die doing the thing they love; though I laughed almost as much at Amanda Vanstone's performance of Nutbush City Limits).

The plot of Babes in the Wood - the panto within the play - could have been written by a right wing blogger. It features dire warnings about suspicious, seductive, drug-soaked Oriental types; much bruiting of Empire - a highlight is a song, drawn from a George W. Bush quote, called "They Hate Us Because We're Good"; wicked suicide bombers in burkhas and a final exhortation to breed lots of the right kind of white Australians. In between are the kind of incongruous non-sequitur asides that featured so brilliantly in shows like The Young Ones - a lecture on the natural history of Australia, a bunch of cheesy songs from the '80s, sly quotations from Donald Rumsfeld, and so on.

Michael Kantor's production gleefully exploits every theatrical cliche in the panto book. It features a ramshackle set by Anna Tregloan, with roughly painted backdrops and patchwork curtains that go up and down like, well, a whore's underpants. And he has an energetic cast that hams everything up to the required of degree of coarseness, while keeping the action as slick as a politician's dick. (I'm sorry; all that vulgarity is contagious. I promise I will calm down now).

Kantor certainly has the cast to work with. Max Gillies, in his double role as the impresario and Aunt Avaricia, the wicked Dame, is like a fully-rigged ship in full command of the stage, and he is strongly supported by the rest of the cast, all doing camp at around 120 decibels (but also, when called upon to do so, singing beautifully). Iain Grandage's songs, with Kate Denborough's peppy dance routines, are highlights. The whole thing is in the worst possible taste, and guaranteed to appeal to the horrible child that lurks in each of us. In short: it's a gas.

THIS YEAR, the MTC's version of a Christmas panto is Tomfoolery, Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray's collage of Tom Lehrer songs. It was already a nostalgia piece when it was first produced more than 25 years ago, and while there's no doubting Lehrer still has the capacity to please, his dour Cold War pessimism is a little outdated now. Satire, particularly political satire, depends so crucially on the issues du jour, that it's inevitable that what was extreme or shocking in 1955 is often going to miss its targets.

We have now a postmodern version of the Cold War, with an abstract noun replacing the Soviet Union's Evil Empire. And our apocalyptic fears these days focus on the hurricanes and rising water levels of climate change, rather than the nuclear immolation Lehrer celebrates with his appallingly catchy We'll All Go Together When We Go. When Lehrer levels his guns at the hippy protest song, it requires a little contextual explanation - the protest song has vanished into the op shop of history, to be replaced with the punk/folk of Billy Bragg, the Pogues or even Paul Kelly.

Still, it would be churlish to deny the charms of Lehrer's wittily Byronic rhymes, and classics like the Masochism Tango or Poisoning Pigeons in the Park still retain their perverse comic shine. I was shocked by how many songs I knew - like many people around 40, I guess, Tom Lehrer featured in my parents' record collections - and it was a pleasure to revisit them.

Simon Phillips gives Tomfoolery a full-blown production, with a design that's a kind of exaggerated fantasia of night-club sleaze (minus the filth, noise, cigarette smoke and gangsters) and some spectacular costumes (Rhonda Burchmore's green and red silk ballgown gets a particular mention - I watched it all night in fascination).

It's a bad sign when you're taking more notice of the cossies than the cast, and it has to be said that Phillip's directorial hand is all too busy everywhere. The overdressed set is matched by a actorly freneticism that doesn't quite substitute for genuine vitality. Gerry Connelly is fun, and always a showman, but here he is not at his sharp-witted best; and Bert Labonte's performance seems to consist almost entirely of mugging.

Even the legs herself, Rhonda Burchmore, appears to lack her usual lustre: perhaps it's all that stage business, which includes at one point pouring out two cups of tea, for reasons which remain wholly mysterious or are, at least, theatrically gratuitous. Only Mitchell Butel and Melissa Madden-Gray keep the home flag flying, with some sharp footwork and performances the right side of caricature.

Picture: (Left to right) Francis Greenslade, Max Gillies and Julie Forsythe in Babes in the Wood. Photo: Jeff Busby

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