Review | Short + Sweet, Week Two
(This review originally published on www.artshub.com.au and elicited one piece of hate mail.)
When I told my workmate I was going to see Short + Sweet, a look of dumb animal terror flashed across his face. “I went to one of those last year,” he whispered. “The horror ...”
I backed out of the office slowly and jumped on my bike. Having been to Short + Sweet in 2007 and 2008, I was prepared; I knew that not all of the ten mini-plays could be brilliant. And anyway, even if two or three of them were ‘turkeys’, at least they'd be over in ten minutes! But as I approached Chapel off Chapel, I couldn't shake off a grim sense of foreboding.
The Week Two program opens weakly, and quickly deteriorates. The first piece,Canadian Tuxedo, features a pair of unconvincing Pulp Fiction-esque loser-gangsters with chewy Yankee accents; some slightly funny jokes about the fraudulent self-help book The Secret; and turkey jerky. Pink Dress references Dr Phil and makes a mockery of alcoholism, before launching into some inept and dated meditations on the lingering trauma of September 11 (who?) for an everyday Aussie boozer – who just happens to be living near his sister in downtown New York, and who is blithely unaware that anything else bad might ever have happened anywhere else in the world, ever. I was confused about where these plays were taking me – not to Australia, and not even really to the USA; maybe to some degraded daytime TV netherworld, where B-grade actors go to die?
This feeling intensified with Vienna Syndrome – which was okay, but literally so forgettable that I had to text some fellow audience members the following day and get them to remind me what it was about. It is ostensibly set in a advertising agency, with some unlikeable caricatures trying to make kidnapping sexy; but I suspect it is more about the popular TV show Madmen than any actual ad agency. The next piece, King Hit, features a disembodied spirit presence, a melodramatic narrative that could've been written by the Victorian State Government's anti-drinking team, and a totally unnecessary, un-dramatic flashback, and some euthanasia in a hospital. Perhaps this is where all those poor actors go to get put out of their misery?
After all that, Lucas Gillard's The Swagman's Song (directed by Scott Gooding) is a huge relief. It is high-energy, fast-paced, funny, knowing, and – unlike the preceding works – purposefully crappy. Joshua Cameron overacts up a storm as a deranged Aussie swagman, and “Old Doug” (Glyn Roberts) the unhappy Chinese migrant is wonderfully inexplicable. There are some great non-naturalistic staging decisions, that take advantage of the possibilities of live performance. For all its trashiness, The Swagman's Song took me on a journey, and made me think a bit about Australia's relationship to sexism and sexuality, racism and race.
At the interval, everyone lined up for a stiff drink. I found myself thinking of that quote from Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates – it has little pieces of shit mixed in with the Turkish Delight”. When Chapel off Chapel's siren went off to announce the beginning of part two, I looked around nervously, and saw a now-familiar look of paralysed fright on a number of faces.
The Big C's actors extracts a fair amount of camp mileage from overplaying a Bold and the Beautiful-style set piece between a neurotic ex-wife and her screamingly gay ex-husband. Their performances are very funny, but it remains a one-gag piece that struggles to justify its full ten minutes. The next one, The Tale of Babboo Sabbi, is an absolute shocker. It is set on a half-completed skyscraper in Dubai, where a tradie in an immaculate orange work suit philosophises about ... stuff, while drinking an Australian longneck. (Note: it's quite hard to buy alcohol in Dubai, let alone Aussie beer.) Meanwhile, a sneering, lollipop-licking homosexual ghost (?) kind of taunts our soliloquising hero, although the ghost (?) seems as confused about his presence onstage as I was. Actual Fantasy is no better. Set in a pathetic future straight out of Whose Line is it Anyway?, it features two ham-acting “cat burglars” who break into a virtual reality gaming room and play theatre sports with three ham actors. While it does push new boundaries in triteness, Actual Fantasy (virtual reality – geddit?) could actually have benefited from being about ten minutes shorter.
But the piece of resistance was undoubtedly The Controlled Use of Heroin, by Traciee Evision. This is a Sarah Kane-style fragmented monologue for four speakers – except unlike a Sarah Kane play, these people appear to have come straight from a Support Group for One Nation voters whose relatives have turned to drug abuse. (If Kane's family is anything like this, it's no wonder she sui'd.) This is not theatre – it is spectacular, head-meltingly bad right-wing self-help anti-drug agit-prop, which includes unforgettable lines such as “Why is it that women never get charged with assault?” and “Some people say that heroin users didn't get enough love as children – but I say, that's bullshit.” Watching this piece is like falling directly into the K-hole, and landing on Johnny Howard's lap. If it was parody, satire, ironic performance art, it is utter genius. But I'm pretty sure it isn't.
The final play – The Road to Hell, a farce about a 1960s Liverpool band and their Vinny Jones-wannabe producer failing to record a hit single – might have been funny. But by this stage in the evening I was just too exhausted to appreciate all the Beatles' song references and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-ish one-liners (there were plenty).
In the end, I was left with unnerving cravings to eat turkey jerky and vote for the Liberal Party instead of The Swagman's Song.
See you at Week Three.