On Mardi Gras night back in 1996 -“ the night John Howard got in -“ I remember thinking that at least the arts will be polarised into some sort of interesting political energy. It took only 10 years, but certainly Australian satire is waking from a political stupor.
There are good servings now available in Sydney, with the musical Keating!, the current STC Revue, Revue Sans Fronti?s, and an endearing bit of vaudevillian nonsense called Babes In The Wood.
The latter is more in the tradition of old English pantomime gone feral in the hot Aussie sun. Indeed, Max Gillies is the drunken dame leading a motley troupe of touring thespians into the outback.
In character, she’s wicked Aunt Avarice who -“ despite our boos and hisses -“ is determined to snuffle out her sexually precocious teenage charges and win their inheritance. As she orders the Babes stranded in the bush, she dismisses our moral objections as the latte-swilling drivel you’d expect from Sydney elites.
The Babes survive ghosts, fires and floods, and wander through lost Australian history, an outrageous bacchanalia in old Baghdad and an underwater meeting with Steve Irwin. Here the talented Eddie Perfect delivers his best role of the night singing, through a gliding chorus of stingrays, Die Doing The Thing You Love.
The Babes meanwhile are tailed by Avarice’s cohorts, a dopey, bird-brained emu (Francis Greenslade) and a conniving, raspy-voiced kangaroo (the brilliant Julie Forsythe). Somehow there’s still room for Amanda Vanstone to sing Nutbush City Limits and, amongst the jokes of vaudeville vintage, many barbs also on the colder heart of Australia today.
Iain Grandage bangs away at the upright piano, drawing on patriotic songs from Federation time, 80s classics and lyrics from old silent films. Together it blends into an appealing and witty score which is often rousing about what is to be an Australian.
Tom Wright’s rewriting of this old English panto may be mad, and often more gently amusing than riotous, but the aesthetic unity and appeal of Michael Kantor’s production carries us through.
The cluttered set and costumes suggest a dark world ripe with theatrical improvisation, where an English Victorian imagination has long gone to seed, and where in the shadows old dames and actors can be anything.
You won’t laugh yourself sick but you will be entertained.
Babes In The Wood runs at the Sydney Opera House until 23 December.