There was an air of expectation in the packed Winston Churchill foyer as my wife and I arrived to claim our tickets and free programme for the second of Encore’s performances, with the expectation and the packing both growing during our wait for the auditorium doors to open and then reaching fever pitch at the spectacle of the transformation of the municipal stage into the brilliantly lit and upbeat Cockatoo Club in Sydney’s entertainment quarter with the forestages enhanced by artistically arranged light-boxes on the walls (able to change colour at will but primarily pink at this stage) with equally artistic matching sets of three tinsel-decorated rostra in front of them, while the beautifully lit stage backed by a fabulous glitter curtain probably exceeded the glamour of any actual such club in Sydney. And a further pause while those without tickets managed to reach the Box Office and the car drivers obstructing the access for Fire Engines were summoned to remove them did nothing to dampen the palpable excitement of the audience young and old whose deafening chatter only abated as MD Rob Dowton’s eight-piece Band, completely hidden but showing great versatility in the very different styles needed throughout the evening, played the loud intro and they started to clap in time with the music. May I add that although I saw no monitors from which the cast could see his beat, neither principals nor chorus showed any difficulty in co-ordinating with it and that singing standards throughout were exemplary – as were his training skills since he only took over his role part way through rehearsals.
With the stage darkened and large raindrops projected onto the glitter, Cristina Duffy, Elaine Griffin and Anastasia Morton as The Three Divas arrived on the rostra stage left in form-hugging glamorous costumes and high wigs to sing It’s Raining Men in full Night-Club style, as they did throughout the evening, with expressive faces and moves and superbly sung harmonies, appearing mainly on one or other of the sets of rostra (and occasionally on the main stage) in different outfits and wigs each lit in appropriate colours, providing commentary, continuity and top-class Night Club entertainment.
The men concerned (though I am not sure now that all eight of them were men) in colourful suits and other costumes danced in appropriately suggestive style and gradually started stripping off some garments (to different extents) before being dismissed by MC Miss Understanding (Ben Lithgow Smith) coming through the glitter and welcoming us to the Club in his huge headdress and heels and skimpy red dress made up of fringes, who in this character showed a fine rapport with the audience (I’m sure he would be at home in pantomimes), making the most of his bitchy remarks and sexual double-entendres and using the enormous length of leg exposed together with body wriggles to add more to the suggestiveness (not to be used in pantos) while clear in dialogue and singing with style. And then we the audience (in our role as the Night Club punters) were treated to an act which I don’t think I have seen before in the show as through the glitter came our first Drag Queen, in full high-heeled glory with a huge wig matching those of the two puppets which he held up on each side and brilliantly sang a duet with them (was it all lip-synch or only partly so with the Divas providing whatever was necessary?) where his mouth was perfectly synched with his words and the puppets mouths equally so as they echoed his phrases. Brilliant use of Avenue Q skills by our main lead man!
I think I need to mention the plot at this stage, already introduced in brief interludes where that leading man’s ex-wife Marion (Francesca Paulley, clear, capable and decisive when on the phone from Alice Springs and when they got there charmingly reassuring despite the early marriage break-up over his sexuality) persuaded him to come there at the request of their young son Benji (Joseph Rawles, whose back catalogue of amateur productions, television and film roles already exceeded the ambitions of most of the cast, so his perfect appearance in an added dream sequence and handling of dialogue when they met, together with a lovely singing voice should have surprised no one), while a further phone call and a visit to the club provided one old, recently bereaved, and one young companion for the trip.
Taking the excesses and cross dressing of the Sydney Gay Club scene (as imagined by choreographer Abigail Bulfin, and seeming perfectly valid in the equally vivid and uninformed mind of your critic) as the model for the Chorus Work in the rest of the show, we were treated to other occasions where what seemed to be the female chorus included men in drag and the whole chorus in drag masks also included the opposite sex, all drilled to confuse us and impress us with their androgynous dancing expertise. The funeral service mourners in black around the real coffin soon changed into a Rock version with a notable spectacular ballet cross from Christian Carnio, lots of dancing with black umbrellas, and hardly enough time for Phil Gossan as the pastor to say “Ashes to ashes”. Back at the Night Club to introduce the other traveller, in a fabulous dance with three boys in what with less miniscule costumes might have been described as Bondage Wear, worn with pride by all (though showing less buttock than the Principal), and hip thrusts spectacularly alternating to great effect as the line of four turned across stage but with faces towards us to emphasise the meaning. As the Principals went off to change during Go West, their song was continued by girls with ginger wigs and men in silver suits dancing in formation with star wheel turns, while three boy hippies in tight shorts and long blonde hair (imagined?), and others loaded the motorcaravan with all the necessities for their Alice Springs show. The Male Chorus changed, becoming rough, tough backwoodsmen in the Broken Hill Pub, though not as rough, tough as Elise Wheatley as Bar Tender Shirley whose forthright dialogue and fantastic, show-stopping number seemed to get everyone on their side. Later, with the bus broken down and graffiti to be erased the Colour My World scene was enhanced by girls (I think) in outrageous costumes dancing and singing while wielding paint brushes (plainly imagined by the Principals from memories of the Club) after which a surprising number of real local residents appeared (from The Middle of Nowhere according to the programme) to help make a spectacular Act 1 finale of I Will Survive.
A diversion to start Act 2 with audience members brought up on stage and taught some simple steps by chorus members to take part in the rustic dance which accompanied Thank God I’m a Country Boy, nicely led in the singing by Alexander Lever with clear words well put over even when the dancing rather overwhelmed him and his washboard, and although being clean-shaven and smart didn’t perhaps convey the expected image a brief reprise with a couple of girls beside him for a scene change achieved spontaneous applause delaying the succeeding scene. Good work later from the ensemble as real country boys plainly finding the vulgarity of Cynthia’s old cabaret act with ping-pong balls (which I have seen in much ruder detail) well played by Victoria Jones, more to their taste than the act put on by the Principals, and then, led by Ben de Glanville, in a frighteningly realistic (for us as well as the recipient) demonstration of gay-bashing, mercifully interrupted before physical harm became too extreme. Meanwhile, happier numbers found (imaginary) ladies entering to provide choruses and amazement at the extent of the exotic headdresses and huge Cup Cake costumes. Alice Springs residents brought the ensemble back to reality with a number of individual characters helping in the frantic preparations for the Show and then acting in trios facing upstage as body doubles for the Principals taking their bows in each set of extraordinary costumes to huge applause. Finally, allegedly at Ayers Rock, the brilliant song and dance of the Kylie Medley and the inspiring anthem We Belong.
Two more to mention before the Principals: Richard Bond, superb as laid-back elderly mechanic Bob, from the Middle of Nowhere who managed to make us believe that in his youth he had seen the famous drag act Les Girls on his way to Vietnam and had been transfixed, as indeed he became again when he discovered that one he had seen was present (an artistic freeze while we saw Christian Carnio as Young Bernadette, assisted by others in a riot of Ostrich feathers, dancing superbly in style from that earlier period to Jerome Kern’s A Fine Romance). His tender spoken reprise of the song and further scenes with Bernadette hit just the right note for us to accept perhaps the most fairytale of all romances.
With three leading men each providing inspirational performances in the interpretation of their three very different characters and putting over inclusion as the outstanding message of the evening, I can only make a few inadequate comments of appreciation. Matthew Pimm as Tick, the acceptable face of Drag when in street-wear but properly exotic as Mitzi Mitosis in performance, leading the adventure without revealing why to his rather non-plussed companions or sharing with them his doubts, and so delighted when Benji called him Dad. Immaculate in dialogue and interpretation with a lovely voice capable of every style in the score of songs assembled for the show. Martin Wilcox as Bernadette, long retired, newly bereaved and living as a woman with all the vocal range and the body language of that role seemingly completely natural, and hilarious at any mention of lip-synching. Obviously blown away by Bob’s unexpected attentions but hugely masculine in the realistic gay-bashing scene rescue. And congratulations to them both for necessarily adjusting their performances when only four weeks before the show the original Adam had to leave the cast, and welcoming to the role teenager Conor Quinn, who despite great experience of leading and other roles in local productions and appearing in Opera Houses and the like has I am sure never before attempted something of this nature or variety of performance aspects. However, there was not a trace of uncertainty in his interpretation to indicate his late assignment to the role (which I only learned of by reading the programme after the event) and while Opera House experience might have helped with his perfect lip and body synch for the La Traviata excerpt sung in the huge glittery high heeled shoe, his performance fitting in perfectly with those of his colleagues was a huge achievement. His first “cheeky” appearance showed his talent for song, dance and comedy, he was as at home in the exotic costumes and headdresses as he was (briefly) in his ill-advised cross-dressing excursion, with his genuine horror and regret a fine contrast to his earlier up-beat gay reactions which did so much to lighten even the darker side of their experience.
None of them could have played their roles without the assistance of dedicated Dressers: Karen Anstiss for Miss Mitosis, Sue Chaperlin for Miss Bassenger and Sian Bowles-Bevan for Miss Jollygoodfellow (to follow the descriptions in Jacob Flynn’s superb programme, with some illustrations by Matthew Kitt), or without the expertise of Ensemble Member Anne Costello whose special responsibility (apart from appearing as a cup-cake and in the paint-brush dance) was their gorgeous costumes, while Mandy Gasson headed the huge team responsible for the costumes which the rest of the cast kept changing into (as well as appearing on stage after running the Box Office at the Theatre until curtain-up) while Miss Mitosis herself was in charge of the glorious wigs and headdresses and the many props were the responsibility of Vicky Yeung and Miss Jollygoodfellow.
Nor could there have been a show without Nick Tafe, Set Designer, Treasurer and Technical Manager as well as heading the Construction Team of Pete Smith, Martin Wilcox, Harry Robson and members of the company, who produced the fantastic Priscilla motorcaravan in a roadworthy form in time for Encore’s sparkling appearance representing Hillingdon in the London New Year’s Day Parade, before converting it into the superbly usable stageworthy form, apparently easily moveable by SM Kat Stobbs and her Country Boy assistants, which delighted us all evening. What a fantastic way to get publicity, which I hope will guarantee full houses for all Encore’s future shows as well.
Lee Sansom had a ball as Lighting designer with so many spectacular scenes to illuminate in different ways, aided by Operators Colette White, Joshua Grayson, Charles Hickey and Lawrence Williams, while Simon Jackson-Lyall’s Sound made almost everything clear, a tremendous achievement when nearly everyone was constantly changing costumes, wigs and often headdresses. My thanks to them and to everyone else credited in the programme who contributed to this outstanding show.
And finally to the Whole Cast for their talent and their non-stop energy and commitment throughout, to Choreographer Abigail Bulfin for yet another evening of exceptional movement and dance and to Supremo Karen Bulfin, Chairman, Director and so much more, for the huge concept and its conversion into reality, sensitively steering a course to avoid any offence and maximise enjoyment.