The corner milk bar, Ford vs Holden and quarter acre blocks: the suburbs. Mother June frantically worries about the cheese cubes for daughter Lula’s surprise party, disinterested step-dad Garry pretends to watch sport in his shed, misfits gather and passions warm up. In Sweet Sixteen or The Birthday Party Massacre, Tommy Bradson gives us some cool songs with band The Thorn Section, some cruel humour and, for a number of those in attendance, an immersive theatrical experience.
I’d not yet managed to see Bradson in crowded festival programs, so given a night with no plan I took a frivolous punt on this. Before long, I (unexpectedly) and a series of others were asked up on stage to be party guests. The good time I had watching Bradson work so hard with costume changes to bring us June, Garry and young Johnny, as well as belting out the odd tune, encouraged me to write my first ever review from the stage, which I hope will help Bradson reach the inquisitive, not so easily offended audience he deserves.
With babe in arms, June labours to keep the rituals of family life rolling. She makes acrid comments on Garry and gets laughs from running stereotypes and euphemisms together in rants on the wild behaviour of her children and other youths from the suburb. Her departure for hundreds and thousands gives us a chance to be greeted by the tipsily affable Garry, and experience his casually racist observations and sleazing around the women present. As guests continue to arrive from the stands, the performance shows its potential for audience involvement. Just as the mean-spirited observations threaten to overwhelm, relief arrives like an ice-cream van on a hot day. In awkward Johnny, Bradson captures those tentative times of over-thinking social situations, summed up in a delightfully funny scene where he obsessively tries to find the right type of “surprise” to yell.
I didn’t catch everything in Bradson’s rapid-fire delivery as he dashed around the stage as pharmaceutically-enhanced June, however I heard more than enough to have a good sense of all the characters as they came and went. Interludes from Musical Director John Thorn (piano, piano accordian) with Chris Boyce (drums, trombone) and Jeremy Hopkins (drums, vocals) were well-performed and integrated, giving us characters’ inner thoughts and changing the tempo of the piece. As we went on and prejudices piled higher, my feeling of this as an extreme comedy was undermined by the thought that Bradson had us looking at a mirror of Australia. Given the way that our electorate responds to dog whistles, it’s an uncomfortable realisation that June and Garry would find a lot of friends in some quarters.
I found being on stage initially awkward, but as it was a party I thought it best to eat some chips, drink some goon and join in. If you’re pulled up, Bradson might toy with making you feel uncomfortable, and will succeed as much as you let him. His show turns us unpredictably like a derelict Hills Hoist and Bradson balances sweet and sour with much more success than any suburban Chinese meal I’ve ever had.
I can recommend Sweet Sixteen, my first experience of this form of theatre, as a fun night where fluid performance and some good laughs meet suburban commentary. The suburbs aren’t all bad and big isn’t always better, so if you’re looking to stretch yourself, Northcote Town Hall is doing good work in bringing a range of smaller MICF acts to the northside.