Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 11 – Mar 8, 2014
Playwright: Peter Nichols
Music: Denis King
Director: Alice Livingstone
Choreographer: Trent Kidd
Actors: Matt Butcher, Jamie Collette, Peter Eyers, David Hooley, Morgan Junor-Larwood, James Lee, Henry Moss, David Ouch, Diana Perini, Martin Searles, Gerwin Widjaja
Image by Bob Seary
Written in 1977, this “play with music” appeared just two years before the inaugural Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. It contains some of the earliest progressive depictions of same sex relationships, and is an excellent choice for the New Theatre to present it in conjunction with the Mardi Gras festival this year. The work comes from a time before political correctness, and includes many references to ethnicity, gender and sexual preference that could make contemporary audiences cringe, but director Alice Livingstone is mindful of the change in context and deals with those awkward moments shrewdly and with sensitivity.
Livingstone’s decision to add a prologue featuring the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys” is a stroke of genius. Gerwin Widjaja, Henry Moss and David Ouch play a trio of drag queens in cheongsams inviting the audience to 1948 Singapore, and providing a side of the fictitious SADUSEA (Song And Dance Unit South East Asia) that is missing from Peter Nichols’ show. More importantly, it showcases the talents of Widjaja and Ouch, who would otherwise have been completely mute as the multiple “oriental men” in the original work.
The greatest strength of this production is its cast. Diana Perini in particular rises to the challenge, and does almost everything one could possibly ask of a performer. She plays comedy and tragedy, sings in ensemble and solo, dances en pointe and on tap heels, gets her top off, and does a mean Indian accent. Her role is not terribly interesting, but she sure makes a jaw-dropping one-woman tour de force out of it. James Lee plays Terri Dennis, the most flamboyant character imaginable. He masters all his song and dance routines, and endears himself as a crowd favourite from his very first appearance. Lee is also very effective in creating chemistry, always bringing out the best in his co-actors when appearing together. There is an effortless warmth to this man that most performers can only dream of. David Hooley is polished and disciplined as Steven Flowers. He seems slight in stature but his singing is big and confident, and his tap dancing is thoroughly impressive. His dreamy “Fred and Ginger” style sequence with Perini is most memorable.
Politics shift constantly, and ideologies evolve. Old works of art can be left behind and buried, but creativity can unearth and shine new light on them. We need not be afraid of mistakes past, if we learn to deal with them at every developed age. A 1977 comedy about British forces in 1948 Singapore, has crossed many borders, time and geographical, to reach this point. It is with refreshed enlightenment and a sense of progressiveness that should mark our approach to it today.