The Wharf Revue, the satirical institution that for two decades has been the prelude to mistletoe and Mr Claus, has not so much been hibernating during the pandemic, as incubating. Now Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott have clambered back to their feet, peered behind them, and discovered that they have not only hatched a new show, Good Night and Good Luck, but also a new way of doing business.
Following this week’s Parramatta stint and next year’s February/March season at the Opera House and elsewhere, the revue parts ways with Sydney Theatre Company. Yes, when Biggins, Forsythe and Scott return in late 2021, they will be their own masters.
Gathered in a Roslyn Packer Theatre rehearsal room, they express their gratitude to STC, especially Robyn Nevin and Rob Brookman for first fostering the political satire 20 years ago. “The board were initially reluctant to do it, because they thought it would lose money,” says Biggins, who pauses, and then with impeccable timing, adds, “This is not the case.”
If reaping more of the rewards themselves is part of the motivation for the split, the trio also acknowledges that a show largely consisting of three blokes of a certain age rather clashes with STC’s contemporary emphasis on diversity. That issue is not entirely unrelated to perceptions of humour, too, with yesterday’s hilarity becoming today’s bad taste. Biggins, wary of self-censorship, is bemused that satirists causing offence can even raise an eyebrow. “I thought the idea was to offend everybody,” he says. “But apparently you can offend some people and you can’t offend others, and those rules are constantly shifting. I’m very much in the Stephen Fry camp of ‘no one has the right to not be offended’. But that is against the prevailing orthodoxy.”
Of course the real offence generally lies in the lap of the politicians, not the satirists, and early US election results had Biggins, Forsythe and Scott grimacing at four more years of yellow wigs and orange faces. “If he’d won, I don’t think we could have done what we’re doing,” says Biggins. “When Trump first got in, it was fine: rich pickings, enjoyable, ha ha ha. Now you turn up as Trump and not a laugh.”
Scott: “They hate him so much.”
Biggins: “But now they will laugh because he’s gone… It’s a laughter of release.”
Politics is the tree that keeps giving. For instance when the threesome lamented the loss of Downer, Howard and Pyne, they wondered where the next laugh would come from. “But they just keep turning up,” says Forsythe.
“I hope Christopher Pyne turns up again,” says Scott with a certain wistfulness. He has ongoing soft spots for playing Howard and Rudd, with a bearded Rudd back in the crosshairs this year.
“I used to love playing Alexander Downer,” says Forsythe, “because he was such a fool, and Christopher Pyne, another fool. But I get a lot of material out of Pauline Hanson, and we’re doing her again this year. At first I found her difficult to do, because she’s not that bright, and so she can’t say witty things. She can only say stupid things.”
“But Mrs Malaprop has come to your aid,” adds Biggins.
Making her debut this season is Jacinda Ardern…
In a conventional year they begin writing the show in May, either individually or together, when, Forsythe says, much laughter fills the room. The logistics of costume changes play a big part in defining the running order, and while they adroitly use video segments to grease this process, they’re wary of contaminating the live theatre experience with an overload of screen-time: “You don’t want it ending up like a sofa-bed,” says Biggins, “which is neither comfortable sofa nor comfortable bed.”
A quirk in the copyright act allows music to be “purloined”, as Scott puts it, for satire, so his role as musical director is primarily at the piano and setting harmonies on the painstakingly-honed lyrics. All three have input into choosing the songs they bastardize, with the new show including Putin singing Mama Mia (his favourite musical), and an Elton John medley about North Korea (thanks to the Rocket Man connection).
Besides this year’s Mandy Bishop (a regular), countless guests have marched through the revue’s acting ranks, including Tony Sheldon, Jacki Weaver and even Gretel Packer, who won a walk-on role at an STC fundraiser and almost stole the show. But whatever the future brings in terms of performers, the threesome will continue to do the writing. “That’s kind of what makes it,” says Biggins.
Good Night and Good Luck: Drama Theatre, February 17-March 20.