Review: Comedy Festival ~ theatre notes

Monday, March 24, 2008

Review: Comedy Festival

Comedy Festival: Heard It On The Wireless: The Kransky Sisters, with Annie Lee, Christine Johnston and Carolyn Johns, Athenaeum Theatre (season over)

The Jinglists
, directed by Ansuya Nathan, with Warwick Allsop and Tamlyn Henderson, Bosco Theatre, Federation Square until April 13.

The China Incident, written and directed by Peter Houghton, sound design by David Franzke, performed by Anne Browning, The Tower, CUB Malthouse, until April 12. Bookings 1300 660 013

Sometimes it dawns on me with disconcerting clarity that I am not the girl that once I was. It is a sadder and a wiser face that greets me in the mirror each morning. At least, I hope it’s wiser. It’s certainly more tired, which means I must have been doing something, and I should hate to think all that effort might have been for nothing.

What has induced this gloom? The Melbourne Comedy Festival, that’s what. It’s a young person’s game, and it forces me to admit that those halcyon days of yore are all kaput. When I’m stuck in an unmoving, sweaty mass that is attempting, step by tiny step, to escape a theatre, something in me begins to hate humanity. Humanity’s all very lovely at a decent distance (say, a metre or so) but those crowds around Collins Street or streaming in and out of the Town Hall bring out all my innate misanthropy. (I guess I should file these reviews under a heading like “reflections of a middle aged misanthrope”, but the fear that they might inadvertently enter an irony-free zone - Andrew Bolt, for instance - gives me pause.)

Festivals fill me with panic on principle: one look at a program with 200 shows in it and I begin to hyperventilate. I lack the stern fibre of proper critics, who stick out their chins and head off, elbows akimbo, to cover six shows a day. Even at my most self-deceiving, I can’t pretend I am actually covering the Comedy Festival. So here are reports on the three shows I managed to see; all of them, serendipitously, illustrations of the thesis that laughter is deeply related to the human instinct for cruelty.

The Kransky Sisters - Dawn, Mourne and Eva - are three black-haired, pale-skinned singers from “Esk, in Queensland”. They tour the rural roads in their father’s red Morris Major, bringing to eager audiences their idiosyncratic arrangements of songs that they’ve heard on “the wireless”. This evening begins with a slideshow of just such a tour – happy snaps of the unspeakable orange-coloured food in roadside diners, or roadkill, or the three grim-faced sisters squeezed into their car.

In their prim, high-necked costumes, they quiver with sibling hatreds (mostly directed at their half sister Dawn, the tuba player, who is held responsible for their father’s departure) and throbbing, repressed sexuality. The Kranskys are spookily innocent – television was forbidden by their mother, and they still sleep in their childhood beds. But the passions within them have never been quite extinguished, which results in some bizarre behaviours. And has incidentally fatal consequences for several small animals.

Their cruel and painful story unfolds between a song list that is as unlikely as the sisters themselves. Theirs has clearly not been an easy childhood, and their eccentricities are the scars of trauma. “Sticks and stones will break your bones”, says Mourne at one point, looking blackly at her sister, “and words hurt too”. If they weren’t so funny, it would be the saddest thing you’d ever heard.

Annie Lee, Christine Johnston and Carolyn Johns are fantastically inventive musicians: their instruments include an old 60s keyboard, a toilet brush, tambourines, a saw and a saucepan, all accompanied by the lugubrious baseline of Dawn’s tuba. With these unlikely tools, they attack AC/DC, The Eurythmics, Russell Morris and (perhaps my favourite of the lot) Talking Heads, unpacking the tropes of popular music with a deadpan wit that, in a true theatrical paradox, somehow stays true to the anarchy in the heart of rock and roll.

Sibling passions and frustrated sexuality are also at the heart of The Jinglists, the second show from Warwick Allsop and Tamlyn Henderson. They brought us the surreal cabaret A Porthole Into the Minds of the Vanquished, which premiered at the Comedy Festival in 2006. While Porthole was a kind of riff off the subconscious, like entering someone else’s dream, The Jinglists is almost recognisably a play. At least, it has a recognisable narrative, and even characters.

The Jinglists is at once more serious and more ambitious than their first piece. In its evocation of agoraphobic childhood, it irresistibly recalls Lally Katz's play The Eisteddfod, which also explored the fantasy lives of two isolated enfants terribles. In this case, the two brothers Loman and Leigh haven't moved outside their apartment since their mother died. They make their living by writing advertising jingles, and the rest of the time live a distorted version of childhood, dictated by nursery routines of eating, bathing and sleeping.

In their own strange way, the brothers are quite happy in their hermetically sealed world. That is, until love knocks on their door and adult passions are wakened within their childish psyches. Performing in white-face, Allsopp and Henderson are sad clowns exposing the infantile emotional manipulativeness and barren realities of the world of advertising.

This show requires a more sympathetic venue; it's theatre rather than knockabout standup comedy. But Allsopp and Henderson are consummate performers, and against the odds they bring to their strange, absurd story a compelling poignancy. And some fatally catchy jingles.

Like Peter Houghton’s one-man comedy hit The Pitch, The China Incident originated at La Mama. It’s effectively a companion piece, this time with Houghton in the directorial seat and his partner Anne Browning, who directed The Pitch, as the performer. Anne Browning plays Bea Pontifec, a high-powered, emotionally explosive diplomatic consultant walking an increasingly narrow line between career triumph and personal disaster.

The play consists of one side of an increasingly frenetic series of phone calls. Bea has five different telephones, a mobile and an intercom, all of which ring constantly. She juggles calls from a blood-thirsty African dictator, the President (who wants to know about her underwear), her lover at the UN and her PA. As her job rockets into hyperdrive, so does her family life. Her counter-cultural daughter Penny is getting married, but Penny’s idea of table decorations gives Bea conniptions.

The basic danger with this show is a lack of range: on its first outing, there was a sense that, for all its energy, it was a little monotonal. Much of the comedy in The Pitch, a satire of the film industry, evolved from Houghton’s virtuosic performance of entire casts of popular movies, but here Browning has the challenge of performing a single – and rather unsympathetic - character.

But the show has developed from its initial outing last year, and Browning has invested Houghton’s monstrous invention with a little humanity. Even a touch of poignancy. Bea is a bigoted, cynical control freak, a woman to whom image is much more important than substance. She doesn’t care if her daughter is miserable at her own wedding, as long as the table settings communicate the right messages about power, privilege and elegance.

As a diplomatic consultant, her job is about spinning image to hide reality, an agenda she follows with ruthless cynicism. White guilt, she advises the brutal African dictator, will protect him from the criticism of the world community. Meanwhile, a little sexual blackmail ought to keep the Koreans under control… But, like her dysfunctional family, reality keeps intruding, with increasingly chaotic results.

And as her polished professional veneer begins to crack, Bea almost becomes a tragic figure, helpless in the face of the reality she has spent her life denying. It’s not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as The Pitch: the satire here is more bleakly savage. But it’s well worth a look.

Part of this review appears in today's Australian.


Anonymous said...

Please, please, please go and see Daniel Kitson's The Impotent Fury of the Privileged. Not only does it confirm my assertion that his so-called story shows are a kind of fiction to the essays he performs during the Comedy Festival, but it's not even that funny: instead, while certainly more platitudinous than last year's brilliant show, it is nevertheless heartfelt and moving, and wise too, in its way.

(I'm shocked to hear that you're so tired that even the Comedy Festival's audience - far and away the most excitable and therefor likable kind of festival audience - doesn't warm the cockles of your heart! Grinch!)

Alison Croggon said...

La Grinch - c'est moi!

But I admire (and uncertainly remember) the enthusiasm of youth, as I dribble in my bathchair...