It may be time to retire The Wharf Revue. The current-events inspired sketch-style show has become something of a tradition in the Sydney Theatre Company program, and has built up a rich touring life – but, at last night’s opening night of Back to Bite You, its latest iteration, there was no real bite left in this satirical stage mainstay.
2016 has been a harrowing and baffling year in Australian politics, and to have the primary response of the mainstream Australian stage be a sprinkling of older white men and a token woman (this year: Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott, and Paige Gardiner, filling in for an ill Katrina Retallick) making self-congratulatory ‘dad jokes’ feels depressingly, distressingly soft.
Jokes about equal marriage, asylum seekers and Muslim panic, inter-party factions and the general exaggerated stupidity of various federal leaders flickered across the stage but landed with a whisper rather than a slap.
Why not invite more women, or performers of colour, or queer performers, into the Wharf Revue club? More rounded, accessible, and diverse parody would be a blessing. Jokes from the majority fall a bit flat when their punchline is the continued lack of respect given to minorities; even when their jokes are on the side of the voiceless, it’s all a bit obvious and toothless and does nothing to attack or address that voicelessness.
And why on earth do an extended Brexit-themed Carry On parody? The British farce film series ran from 1958 – 1978. Nothing about its politics or humour are relevant or even enjoyable in 2016 – and no one needs a chase scene set to Yakety Sax, Benny Hill style. There’s no life left in these references and they just serve to set The Wharf Revue as members of the out-of-touch past, rather than roguish truth-tellers, representing present reality (as their marketing suggests).
Most sketches this year had no real heft and little ambition, frequently aiming for the cheapest, easiest joke: the first half of the show, set in Ancient Rome, kept coming back to a “when the cock crows” pun; a joke about a paedophile soccer team consisting of Knox Grammar staff met with audible audience displeasure; and a large portion of the show focused on an extended Little Shop of Horrors parody centred on the current US presidential election campaign, which is the easiest of all easy wins in political comedy at the moment (and seems a strange topic to win so much on-stage time, given our campaign period this year was bursting with potential material).
It’s also been hard to ignore over the past few years that The Wharf Revue is frequently, consistently and casually sexist. Jokes about male politicians range from their competence in the job to their scandals, their alliances and their niche interests, but the women onstage are lampooned primarily for their appearance and their sexualities (Amanda Bishop’s beloved Julia Gillard often rose above this – and she appears in a brief video in this year’s show).
Back to Bite You undermines its smartly-observed Jacqui Lambie (Paige Gardiner) and Pauline Hanson (Drew Forsythe) caricatures by confining them to a lazy scene where they assume they’re sexually desirable to a man who isn’t interested in them – the duet that follows is supposed to be quasi-feminist but it falls apart conceptually very early on. Julia Bishop (Gardiner again) appears in the first half of the show, and despite having her own rich political material to mine from, is only given one joke to play: the fact that she has sex.
A few things did land – Forsythe’s DiNatale starred in a Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse inspired solo number that was satisfyingly sharp, and a sketch in memory of Bob Ellis was surprisingly wistful; a true and engaged response to a moment of national interest among a sea of superficial old faithfuls and sketches aimed at the low-hanging fruit.
These were nowhere near enough to elevate the entire production. Why not put this years-long revue to bed, or at least revist the formula? A winner in 2000 couldn’t – and shouldn’t – still be a winner now. Comedy should change and grow with the times. It’s time to dig deeper.