Barrel of Wharfs
If you find yourself turning to shows like The Roast or Shaun Micallef’s MAD AS HELL for discerning political commentary, or wondering whether Utopia is actually a documentary, then chances are you’d enjoy THE WHARF REVUE. That is, if you’re not already a fan. In its fifteenth year, this irreverent political sketch comedy show has become an anticipated highlight of the Sydney Theatre Company’s annual season. It is written by Phillip Scott, Drew Forsythe and Jonathan Biggins and is usually performed by these guys too, along with a fourth, female cast member. But this year, due to other commitments, Forsythe isn’t performing (although he still helped write the show) so Douglas Hansell is taking his spot on stage alongside Scott, Biggins and semi-regular cast member Amanda Bishop (who you’d know from At Home with Julia). I spoke with Hansell, who Biggins joked would bring in the hipster crowd to see the show, about the Revue and importance of political satire in today’s unrelenting 24 hour news cycle.
I ask Hansell, a self-confessed political junky, about the show’s longevity. “It’s got great appeal because Aussies love to poke fun at people in power, particularly now, given that everything is so awful in the political world,” he says. “There’s not much good news coming out of Canberra in terms of people running the show. People kind of need comedy as a relief from all that. For me it’s kind of good because I can get very angry about the things I read and hear coming out of Canberra. But then doing the show is so much fun, so joyous, it was a nice respite from all that.”
The show is written six weeks before opening night, which as Hansell points out “must be terrifying for [the writers]”, but probably made possible by the amount of material helpfully contributed by our politicians. I ask Hansell whether the Revue fills a void created by the 24 hour news cycle, within which there seems to be no time for reflection or piecing together the long-story. He agrees, particularly lamenting the annoying habit of politicians these days to reduce everything to a slogan. “It’s just so frustrating because I think the language or the political literacy of people is really being done a disservice,” he notes. “I found it really quite distasteful. Something like ‘Operation Bring Them Home’, it’s so reductive – like for something that is desperately sad, like the tragedy of that plane crash and then to give it a sloganistic title like that. But it’s great fodder for comics.”
Hansell doesn’t play any of his political idols in the show – far from it – but he’s enjoying playing Christopher ‘Robin’ Pyne; Scott Morrison, who he definitely doesn’t like; Kevin Andrews, “which is great because I look nothing like him”, he quips; Andrew Bolt and ‘Blinky’ Bill Shorten. “There’s also a Peta Credlin Opera – I come on for two lines and they’re some of favourite lines in the whole show. I play Warren Truss in that,” adds Hansell.
And there is more. A sketch set in the locker room of the Palmer United Party at half-time, a take on the Canterbury Tales about a miner and a banker who are going to Canberra to lobby Joe Hockey for favours. “We also so touch on the Catholic Church child abuse scandal, which people don’t necessarily expect from the Revue,” says Hansell. “It is the most sedate and sombre item in the show, but it works really, really well. You’re trusting that the audience will go with you for a few minutes [for that sketch] and have a bit of a think and then we’ll get back to the laughter. But we need to do it.”
With all the different characters and costume changes, Hansell describes the show as a duck paddling water. “It looks very smooth on top but underneath, or [back stage], it’s all going frantically,” he laughs.
I ask Hansell whether he’s looking forward to touring the show to Canberra, given the audiences’ affinity with the political scene. “I’m not joking, Canberra for me is the one I’ve been most looking forward to because it is a city built on politics,” he says. “Everyone there will know everything, they’ll know more about certain issues than we do, or the guys that wrote it. It’s kind of terrifying too because they’ll kind of go, ‘no, that’s not Christopher Pyne’ or ‘yeah, that’s Christopher Pyne’. But I think they’ll have a really good time.”
The Wharf Revue typically attracts an older audience, so towards the end of our conversation I ask Hansell what he thinks the show could do to attract a younger audience. “You can’t blame the 20-odd-somethings for not getting engaged in theatre if they don’t want to,” he says. “But I think political theatre really can be an agent for change. This show, I think people who are interested in politics will find it fascinating and I think our generation can get something out of it and there’s a reason why this kind of comedy works. There’s a reason its survived for so long, because it’s really good at the end of the day. It’s just comedy done really, really well.”
The Wharf Revue is on at the Canberra Theatre from Tuesday September 30 until Saturday October 4. Tickets from $45 +bf/40 +bf onwards, available from the venue.