By Ellis Koch
It was thirty years ago that Colin Lane and Frank Woodley graced the Melbourne performance scene as a comedy duo, although their origins are as a trio dating back as far as 1986. So, minus the eleven year hiatus from 2006 until 2017 . . . That’s twenty six years of writing and performing together. That’s four years more than Bud Abbott and Lou Costello – arguably the greatest comedy duo ever and certainly the most famous. And while the two duos share similarities – the straight man/funny man structure, slapstick humour, insults and running jokes – there is something wild that sets them apart: Abbott and Costello may have been infinitely more prolific with regard to their output, but as time wore on their shtick got tired. Their work in the later days, with all but a very small couple of exceptions, lacked the sharpness and hilarity of their early days. Lano and Woodley, however, have aged wonderfully like a fine wine. Perhaps it was the eleven year hiatus or perhaps it is because they haven’t been as prolific that their latest show, Moby Dick, finds them at the absolute top of their game. Now, the writing isn’t necessarily as sharp as pinnacle Abbott and Costello – it’s no Who’s On First – but the presentation and execution of the material, their performances and their relationship with their audience is stronger than it ever has been. This is the work of two men who have a wealth of talent and experience under the belt. This is deliberately “sloppy” comedy that is so polished, so sharp, that the lines between genuine moments of improvisation and well-oiled and rehearsed material are very much invisible. Lano stuffs up a solo music segment, a really cool moment in the show where he uses a loop pedal and his voice to create a song on stage – or does he stuff it up? Was it a real mistake or was it wonderfully executed shtick? The answer is twofold: I don’t know and it doesn’t matter because the two performers have got this type of comedy down to a fine art.
Lano, ever the long-suffering straight man to Frank’s buffoon, wants to tell the audience a story. The story of Moby Dick. The show opens with an appropriate sea shanty style of song, perfect to set the storytelling vibe, but it isn’t very long at all before Frank, with his delightful brand of idiocy, derails Lano’s plans. It’s a typical theme for the genre and, of course, the duo have based their careers around it, but Moby Dick is a slick production. The lighting and sound design serve to heighten and highlight shifting moods and are executed with precision. The animations playing on a piece of scrim at the back of the stage, while feeling slightly dated in quality, don’t overwhelm or overstay their welcome. The set itself is simple – two barrels and a harpoon set against off-white scrim that serves as, I guess, white canvas sails. But nothing is overdone – it all neatly contributes to the atmosphere of the piece.
The performances of both Lano and Woodley are smooth. It’s really quite incredible to watch the two of them execute flawless banter with each other and the audience. Their style of fourth wall breaking comedy works well because they never linger too long on the audience and their jokes don’t overstay their welcome in a bad way – that is, even when their jokes linger longer than they technically should they only linger as a deliberate part of the show because both men have got their fingers right on the pulse of comedic timing. They know what works and what doesn’t work and so they can, and do, exploit the rules and rhythm to make the form of comedy a joke in and of itself.
This makes for delightful, charming and warm viewing. And seeing them at the top of their game, as someone who has watched them over the decades, is delightful. They, like their jokes, haven’t overstayed their welcome. Watching them continually succeed and add layer upon layer of polish to their work is kind of heart-warming. Their use of direct address with the audience has always fostered a kind of intimate relationship between performer and viewer so seeing them perform now, thirty years on from their origins as a duo, is like reconnecting with a distant but familiar friend.
Lano and Woodley know their strengths and they know the limits of their material – Moby Dick is 60 minutes in length. Just long enough to get you feeling warm and fuzzy and absolutely craving more. Get along to see these two absolute legends of Australian comedy before they decide they need another eleven year break. Highly recommended.