Pants-wetting capabilities – Geoffrey Rush loves the Comedy Tonight

Forum has something for everyone…

Geoffrey Rush and Shane Bourne in Forum 2012. Image by Jeff Busby
Geoffrey Rush and Shane Bourne in Forum 2012. Image by Jeff Busby

Simon Phillips' brand new production of A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum is giving audiences the giggles night after night at Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne. But with a dream cast of Australia's most known and loved comedians, actors and music theatre performers, there was never a doubt that the crowds would be rolling in the aisles as they watched Larry Gelbart and Bert Shevelove's musical farce come to life on stage before their eyes.

Leading the company in the star-vehicle role of Pseudelous is Australian of the year Geoffrey Rush, and the best way he can describe the audience reaction to the piece is “feral” – in the most emphatically positive way possible. The show turned out to be as funny, and the script as tight as they say in the publicity packs, and he is loving every second of it.

“What I hadn’t really expected was that this show comes with a kind of legendary gold stamp on it saying 'it’s one of the funniest broadway books ever written’ and you think ‘oh I’m sure it is, I’m sure when Zero Mostel did it, it was very very funny'”, Rush said with a grin.

“And then at our first preview, there was something that happened in the auditorium. Something feral happened. The audience were clapping along on the opening number and it was like a rock and roll stadium. Line by line it was like they were banging back with the biggest, wildest most raucous laughter and thunderous applause. It was something above and beyond what we ever could have imagined.”

Something peculiar?

Geoffrey Rush and Adam Murphy in Forum. Image by Jeff Busby
Geoffrey Rush and Adam Murphy in Forum. Image by Jeff Busby

Perhaps, Geoffrey ponders, it is the temperature of the times? We live in a world obsessed with instant messages, 140 character tweets, and knowledge at our finger tips. Becoming involved in a different world for two and a half hours allows theatre goers and performers alike to unify and react together, in a way that we simply cannot from the 'comfort' of our own phones.

“Theatre is a very public gathering, and I think people at the moment are quite dispirited with public discourse that we read online or on tweets or in the newspaper and it just seems quite a tragic pathetic bun fight with no clarity of focus. And suddenly a show like

this says 'we are a ridiculous, preposterous race' and it's quite good to have a great cack!”, he says.

[pull_left]They were banging back with the biggest, wildest most raucous laughter and thunderous applause. It was something above and beyond what we ever could have imagined[/pull_left]And 'cack' they do! Audiences and performers alike relish the hilarity of the show every night – even Rush's co-star Magda Szubanski has a hard time containing her laughter.

“I was probably overacting so hard the other night in my death scene that I fell off the bench”, Rush joked.

“A few people were worried that I might have cracked my coccyx, but Magda Szubanski was wetting her pants”, laughed Rush.

“It certainly has pants-wetting capabilities, this show!”

And it's all thanks to the original text, written 50 years ago and based on the Roman farces of Plautus, who lived until 183 BC. With an opening number entitled 'Comedy Tonight', what else could be the case?

“I can only describe it as being an archaeological dig – these jokes fundamentally are timeless, but they are 2000 years old. But when you unleash them to a modern audience, they explode.”

Something familiar?

“The show kind of invites people's imaginations to get very very excited, which is extraordinary to play with, because the book hands it to you. We have worked pretty hard, but nothing has been changed from the original text. A couple of people tried different ad libs at different moments and Simon [Phillips] said “Nice try, but not as good as the book”.

The trick, Rush explains, is to make the execution of the show appear to have been made up in the spur of the moment, but it's mostly highly scripted.

“There are a few little nice things that happen every performance that you think 'oh that's fresh', though. There was one guy the other night, just did a very loud, singular laugh – by himself. Just HUGE! And then of course the whole audience laughed at it, and I got some mileage out of that with the business I was doing at the time. So you treasure those kind of moments.”

Marrying the farcical story and script with the genre of musical theatre is Stephen Sondheim's big, bold, sassy score, which is played by an orchestra situated (unconventionally), in amongst and behind Gabriela Tylesova's incredible set. According to Rush, these vibrant, stand alone show tunes are not meant advance the plot with the sophistication of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or stir the crowd like the anthems of Les Mis or Phantom, but they certainly add to the excitement of the evening.

“This is a score that was written with singular songs that had their own individual burlesque kick and it's great being downstage with that band rocking behind you”, Geoffrey said.

A cast peppered with stars. An orchestra that packs a punch. Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone – I'm sold on this Comedy.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum is playing exclusively in Melbourne at Her Majesty's Theatre for a limited season, starring Geoffrey Rush, Magda Szubanski, Shane Bourne, Gerry Connolly, Adam Murphy, Christie Whelan, Hugh Sheridan, Bob Hornery and Mitchell Butel.

For more information and to book tickets vist funnything.com.au

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Erin James

Erin James is AussieTheatre.com's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).