Highly emusing: Don’t Look Away’s Babes in the Woods

An edited version of this piece was published on artsHub.

First produced in 2003 by Melbourne’s Playbox theatre company (now Malthouse), Tom Wright’s Babes in the Wood was a twenty-first century take on the colonial pantomime tradition, spiralling out of control into a hallucinogenic cornucopia of disreputability. Now, thirteen years later, Don’t Look Away – the company responsible for Inner Voices and The Legend of King O’Malley – have returned to the woods of the Old Fitz, and have brought us something approximating a sequel but also a more contemporary reinterpretation of the panto tradition and an interrogation of the milieu from which the Australian pantomime tradition sprang in the nineteenth century, as well as our own 2016 context. And even though it might look like it’s raided a Christmas warehouse for its set in the best possible way imaginable, it still packs a satirical punch and leaves you doubled over in laughter, appropriately heckling the performers and throwing cabbage. What’s not to love?

Theatre in Australia at the end of the nineteenth century was often performed in large venues filled – in John McCallum’s words – with “sensations, pageants, choruses, ballets, orchestras, comedy, sex, violence and passion – things we all still want… On the nineteenth century stage, the whole world [and a few others besides] were dragged kicking and screaming into the theatre.” While melodrama in Australia outlasted its British and American counterparts well into the twentieth century (and, some might argue, into the twenty-first century as well), the traditions of pantomime and music hall became vaudeville acts and survived well into the 1950s; and, as McCallum notes, pantomime’s traditions have been inherited by Tonight shows, as well as variety shows like Australian Idol et al. It is out of this context – of varied comedy acts and putting their world on the stage that the Australian pantomime tradition grew. While our current perception of pantomime as a limp-wristed and Cockneyed vapid tradition dates from the 1960s, colonial pantomime was much rougher and, in the words of director Phil Rouse, more “political, transgressive, titillating, irrational and magical.”
Enter Babes in the Woods at the Old Fitz. The story follows orphaned twins Ruby and Robbie who arrive on their wicked aunt Avericia’s doorstep with a fortune in their name and little else; a fortune that is theirs, unless something should befall them, and then it becomes Avericia’s. Following in the footsteps of Hansel and Gretel, the twins are taken into the woods where all manner of fates await them until good old bush justice can be meted out.
The tiny eighty-seat theatre is decked to the walls with red, gold, and silver tinsel (almost a kilometre of the stuff, we are told), and a rough-hewn nativity featuring toy koalas and assorted Australiana, while a musician sits on the stage decked out in sunglasses, fez, and dressing gown; Martelle Hunt’s set may seem simple, but it becomes an appropriately dazzling backdrop for her costumes – a mashup of period crinolines and ringlets with plaid, short-shorts, leiderhosen, mullets, and Merv Hughes moustaches. And a gloriously thick-witted emu called Flapgherkin. Sian James-Holland’s lighting is richly coloured, merrily joining in the festive atmosphere, but also gently guides the audience to their appropriate reactions (Applause; Boo/Hiss; It’s Behind You!; Get on With It!), and uses spotlights, footlights, and several clever effects to great use. Phillipe Klaus’ compositions keep the action moving with nods to more than a couple of popular musicals and songs, but also nodding further back to the music-hall and pantomime roots of the piece; while the songs are all strong musically and lyrically, the accompaniment is perhaps a little too loud for the small space and drowns out the clever and barbed lyrics on occasions.
Rouse’s cast of six are all more than adept at the panto genre, and play with gusto and barely contained delight, almost on the verge of corpsing on one occasion. As the grand panto dame, Annie Byron’s Aunt Avericia (a woman playing a man playing a woman) is marvelously overthetop in the mode of a good old booable villain, and she seems to be having too much fun. Alex Malone and Ildiko Susany’s Ruby and Robbie are hilariously naïve, but there’s also some of every audience member in them that makes their characters funnier but also more pointed. Gabriel Farncourt’s Phyllis is (initially) the picture of a nineteenth century maiden, in auburn ringlets and cream longsleeved dress, but when she meets her paramour, the drover’s son Jack (played with ditzy panache by Sean Hawkins), well, we meet another side of her entirely. But perhaps the scene-stealer here is Eliza Reilly, in her roles as Avericia’s emu-sidekick Flapgherkin (one of the simplest but goofiest puppets I’ve seen, and one that would give Garry Ginivan’s a run for its money) and the Angel of White Privilege, deployed with more than a nod to Belvoir’s own Angels from three years ago.
Written by director Phil Rouse from the play by Tom Wright (it’s interesting to compare the two, and see what has been adapted, cut, changed, or kept; even though I miss Flapgherkin’s colleague-in-crime Boingle, the demented wallaby, the Old Fitz is too small for two forward-moving animals), there are some subtle and notsosubtle digs at our current societal attitudes and behaviours towards refugees, immigration, white privilege, critically-acclaimed theatre (The Secret River is the butt of a somewhat complicated and extended joke which ties itself in knots but plays right into Sydney’s lap), cultural cringe (the 2000 Olympics mascots get a look in at one point), and every kind of innuendo and panto gag you could wish for. It’s a bit messy, a bit scrappy, but there’s also a point to it all: the idea that ‘if you’re white you’ll be alright’ is as outdated as the beer languishing in the door of my grandmother’s fridge (sixteen years and counting, if you're playing along at home). In the preface to his original script, Wright suggests that where the villains of the traditional panto were the monsters, the adults, in the Australian tradition, the villain was more often than not the bush, the untameable landscape we found ourselves transplanted into, half a world away, and the ramifications of that are still being felt on all sides. In his own version, Rouse implies that we, the (predominantly white middle-class) audience are the villains with our complacency, white-guilt, bystander syndrome, and all kinds of complexes you can imagine; there are several occasions where the fourth wall doesn’t just break but shatters into six billion pieces and counting, and we laugh because the point has been made but because sometimes laughter is the only way we can learn how screwed the system inherently is.
After a year of political upheaval and turbulence on numerous fronts, and heavy thought-provoking stories in the news, around us, and on our stages, Rouse and his co-conspirators (with a bit of help from Tom Wright) follow in the model of the Wharf Revue and give us a good old fashioned panto, the likes of which we haven’t really seen this side of… well, I can’t remember the last time I saw a dose of pantomime this good, this raucous, this well-aimed. And even though it is the silly season, and even though you do get to throw cabbage (at least they didn’t throw cucumbers, as Cervantes once said), it’s still worth taking note of what the angel here says, and trying to be a better person. Until then, boo the villains, swoon at the steamy romance, and applaud wildly as rhyme triumphs over reason. Or, as Rouse simply says in his director’s note, “Have fun. Don’t be a wanker.”

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