For more than two decades, the Wharf Review has brought its unique take on Australian politics to the Canberra stage. Combining irreverent song with cutting satire, the team of writers and performers are once again “keeping the bastards honest”, tackling everything from inflation and rising interest rates to climate disaster and world conflict, all while ‘Looking for Albanese’.
Writer and musical director Phil Scott explains that after the recent election, “there really was more of a sense of the Morrison government losing rather than the Albanese Government winning. People had seen through Morrison and wanted a change but they didn’t know a whole lot about Albanese. We have put him into various silly contexts and that is interesting because people don’t have a very specific handle on what he is like.”
Inspired by this quest to better understand Albanese and a new national spirit of optimism that lasted all of a week, Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott and Mandy Bishop will bring to life a cast of political characters. Some are familiar faces while others are newcomers.
“There are new and exciting female voices,” shares performer Mandy Bishop. “There’s Tanya Pliberseck, Katy Gallagher, Jackie Lambie and the Teals. I am enjoying Jackie Lambie at the moment, she gets to be the naughtiest. The characters who get to say it how it is, or who have a bit of arrogance, or who think their voice is important long after they have been pushed out of parliament, they are the fun ones.”
“But there are other characters that appear in the show who aren’t part of the scene anymore such as Paul Keating, Julia Gillard although she is currently on a book tour, or Kevin Rudd,” adds Scott. “They can be useful to bring back and have them comment on current issues and current people in politics. My favourite is playing Kevin Rudd, that is the character I have enjoyed the most. There is a vanity about him, something self-serving, all while trying to be so reasonable.”
In case you didn’t catch it, the title of this year’s revue is an apt nod to the Italian / Australian classic Looking for Alibrandi, an adaptation of which is about to be staged by Belvoir in Sydney. Also featured this year will be West Side Story (a Spielberg remake came out last year), The Lord of the Rings (a new television series premiered last month) and the Wiggles (fresh off their Hottest 100 win and as relevant as ever). Blending political satire with pop cultural references is stock in trade for the Revue.
“When you think of Bilbo Baggins and this incredible journey ahead of him and all these terrible things to try and overcome, it is exactly where Albo is right now,” Scott explains. “How is he ever going to deal with the cost of living, the climate crisis — it’s just one enormous problem after another. With West Side Story we see Albo and his new gang in town. They have got the turf now, and while one gang is gone there is now a gang of Teals to worry about.
“And then there are the Greens as the Wiggles in Wiggle outfits that are four different shades of green. There is something simplistic about the Wiggles which is true of the Greens as well in terms of their policies. There is a naivete.”
Bishop elaborates: “The drama is not unrelated to the archetypal drama of the genre that they pick. If you think of The Lord of the Rings, you have a fellow on a big journey with lots of obstacles which is great to hook any scene on because you have dramatic tension inherent in the piece. And then take West Side Story, it is based on Romeo and Juliet, another archetypal drama. They [the writers] don’t pick stories that aren’t drama to begin with. Those are what are great to inject comedy into.”
After more than twenty years, I wondered if there was any difficulty in keeping things fresh. Bishop assured me there wasn’t. “As a performer I notice that the men have always come up with an exciting genre or satire relevant to what’s happening in the world,” she explains. “Nothing really changes in terms of Australia and its position in the world, but what happens internally is always changing and our politicians are always facing new challenges.”
For some years now, the Wharf Revue has opened their performance season in Canberra and this year will be the same. “Canberra is quite possibly our most important audience,” Bishop confirms. “There is something special about them, they seem to be in on the most nuanced of political jokes.”
Scott laughs. “They are insiders who probably know more about it than we do!”