The Wharf Revue
Back to Bite You
18 October- 23 December
Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott and Katrina Retallik
The Wharf Revue has returned for another year and with an Australian election having just passed us by and an American election just around the corner there was much to discuss. Creators Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott and Katrina Retallik open with a clever Roman motif, loosely based upon the assassination of Julius Caesar. We witness the apostles of the fallen emperor, Antonius Abbottus, lamenting their late leaders demise and planning his restoration. In this we are treated to Romanized parodies of Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews and Cory Bernardi. In alternate skits we enjoy Turnbull loyalists such as George Brandis and Arthur Sinodinos attempting to get assurances from Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison that they will stay loyal to Turnbull. The loyal Brandis and the vacillating Bishop are also approaching independent and crossbench politicians such as Bob Katter, Pauline Hanson and Jacqui Lambie on Turnbull’s behalf.
The Roman power struggle is perfect as an overarching narrative. The show’s creators use the format to flesh out some inspired caricatures, the best of which was Derryn Hinch as a victorious gladiator, waving his sword triumphantly before an adoring colosseum. The show dipped in and out of the main plotline to a few sideshows including a clever skit in which Bill Shorten receives elocution from George Bernard Shaw’s genius creation Henry Higgins and a faux commercial for Bitter Victorian starring Kevin Andrews and this approach works well. The little sideplots gave the show nice shifts of pace while the plotting and subterfuge at the senate gave the show some nice direction to keep us focussed on where we were going. Then at about the two thirds mark this formula was abruptly abandoned.
The Australian parliament as the Roman Senate was replaced by two long and largely uninterrupted stories about life in the UK after Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump in the US. Though both news stories were worthy inclusions in an annual revue and the American segment in particular had a couple of neat flourishes, neither went close to approaching the quality of the Australian focussed start. I can sympathise with why they would choose to dedicate such a great portion of the show to these overseas antics. With Australian politics being so fluid and unpredictable, being able to bank something that was more or less predictable several months ago such as the Trump nomination and the Brexit result would have made planning the show a much more realistic task.
Understanding the rationale however does not make for a more entertaining show. To get to the heart of the problem we need to better understand where the Wharf Revue shines. The highlight of the night for me was near perfect portrayal of the late Bob Ellis. A 5 minute skit in which the talented yet erratic Ellis continued his well-known blog “Table Talk” from within the pearly white gates was masterful. I sat mesmerised as I watched and listened to Bob’s deep, pontifical drawl, as Forsyth intermingled Ellis’ lush verbiage with his puerile invective in a fashion that was impeccably Bob. As reclined happily in my seat listening to Bob shamelessly name drop Gore Vidal and Neville Wran, I reflected that whoever wrote this particularly monologue understood their subject perfectly. It incorporated so many of the tiny little nuances that contributed to making the complete ensemble that was Bob Ellis such a delightfully ludicrous character in real life. We could tell that Ellis was not merely a man who the creators had witnessed act inappropriately a handful of times on television but someone they had observed with delighted interest over decades.
There was no such refinement in Trump and Clinton, and at any rate the pair was sidelined for most of it. The main focus of this drawn out interlude was a trio of Republican officials deciding who to support, initially becoming enthralled then horrified by Trump’s dynamism. These characters were flat and unimaginative, aside from a few polite giggles at some clunky double entendres these skits were watched largely in silence.
The Brexit material contained similar weaknesses. The team elected not to go for impressions at all despite the generous real life offerings from eccentrics like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, instead they focussed exclusively on how ordinary Brits were getting on in life after Brexit. This approach done well can be sublime, but it is certainly a more challenging. For a show like this to sustain itself for ninety minutes its protagonists need to have at least some fascination about them. This is understandably a much more difficult task when the characters are drawn from scratch rather than parody which provides a handy template from which to start. Nevertheless, the characters were weakly drawn and the humour mostly undergraduate. A few clever jokes about Brexit and a few more lewd innuendos saved this scene from bombing, but it was more Are You Being Served than The Gillies Report. Sadly, they would have been better off just doing a hammy Boris Johnson impression for five minutes.
Still there’s more than enough gold for it to be worth the admission albeit not enough to fill out a consistently high quality ninety minutes. It’s tempting to say they ought to have stripped the show of most of its international content and elected for a sizzling hour rather than a yo-yoing ninety minutes but then Brexit and Trump are so deliciously ripe for the picking it would seem almost criminal to completely ignore them.
The musical numbers were generally very strong. All four performers are likeable comic actors with great energy and vocal ranges. The clear highlight was a duet with Jacquie Lambie and Pauline Hanson singing “I’m a woman”. On the other hand a couple of Phillip Scott’s solo pieces were a bit dry. His song about the plebiscite in particular was more polemic than comedic.
To fill out 90 minutes with topical satire is a tall task and Back to Bite You, for all its shortcomings largely achieves this. Though there is certainly room for improvement, audiences would be hard pressed to find more satirical ribaldry packed into an evening anywhere else.
Nathan Lentern is a writer and performer.