Protein & Spunk Daddy

by | Jan 30, 2023

By Nick Pilgrim

Suzanne Vale: (Meryl Streep): I’ve been approached by hundreds of people who’ve felt the need to address the lack of relaxation in my work. 

Simon Asquith: (Simon Callow): Really? Hundreds? Well, I’ll have a chat with them. 

Suzanne: In the future, I would prefer to receive direction solely from you. I mean we’re talking about one day of work here. A day in which I was tied to a cactus and assaulted by snakes. Like I was a child. Maybe they should bring my mother on the set, and she can make sure I’m relaxed! 

Simon: That’s it! That’s her! That’s the character! What you’re doing right now! 

Suzanne: But Simon! This isn’t relaxed! This is incredibly upset! 

Postcards From The Edge (1990)
Directed by Mike Nichols / Screenplay by Carrie Fisher

Each year between January and February, Melbourne comes alive with its annual Midsumma Festival. Since its inception in 1989, the event has evolved into one of the world’s leading LGBTQI+ cultural celebrations. An eclectic mix of local and international acts and artists, the three-week calendar includes cabaret, film, music, public forums, social events, spoken word, sport, theatre, and the visual arts.

In 2023 I had the good fortune to review a saucy, adults-only double bill by the rising talent, Darby James. A storyteller, songwriter and performer by trade, his previous works include:

  • Post: A New Musical; 
  • Songs of the Northern River; 
  • Tied Up With Strings; and, 
  • Westberg. 

Several weeks ago, I visited Sydney to experience a week of top-quality live entertainment. Amongst the solid handful of plays and musicals I enjoyed, by the luck of the draw two of these stand-out works were monologues. Known for being one of the performing arts more challenging categories, solo character studies are also the most naked. The actor is completely alone on stage, with only their good memory, the writer’s text, and the director’s vision to guide them.

Girls & Boys (written by Dennis Kelly and performed by Justine Clarke at the Seymour Centre) and Blue (written and performed by Thomas Weatherall for the Belvoir Street Theatre) could not be more different in form and content. What they shared however, was the protagonist’s connection to their respective journey, and how that pathway impacted and informed the person they became by each show’s conclusion.

Returning for a third successful season, Protein details the notion of ‘life getting in the way of your plans’ and drives it home full tilt. This engaging and immersive story takes place over one eventful 72-hour period.

Unlike the above-mentioned dramas, James rests his finger squarely on the giggle button. Told in both the present and episodic flashback, Charlie is the story’s hapless and charming protagonist.

Expertly played by Will Hall, the actor displays a keen sense of frustrated humour and humiliated physical abandon in equal measure. Drawing you in from the start, at times I was reminded of James Corden’s brilliant turn in One Man, Two Guvnors, Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese’s motion picture cult classic, After Hours, Meryl Streep’s trial by fire in Postcards From The Edge, the female cast of Bridesmaids (directed by Paul Feig), and the team players (including Matt Day, Rahda Mitchell and Frances O’Connor) from Love & Other Catastrophes, all rolled into one.

Trying to stay afloat against the obstacle course he is forced to endure, Hall’s character could fall to pieces at any moment. It is quite something to see him switch emotions in a heartbeat. Committing to the piece with the high energy needed for it to succeed, viewers can’t help but want Charlie to triumph at all costs.

With its compact running time of 60 minutes, Hall’s whirling dervish acts and reacts to everything happening around him. At times overwhelmed by an unrelenting sea of conscious choices, he plays multiple roles as well as responding to pre-recorded voiceovers. The split-second timing from the actor, and solid sound design support make for a seamless experience.

Intelligent direction and pacing by Domenica Garrett (with assistance by Cameron Steens), always keep viewers’ interest and investment on point as well.

Multiple lighting cues from Sidney Younger (including various fade-outs and one brilliant touch I won’t reveal) throughout the show add to Protein’s madcap pacing. From the ill-fitting charity shop clothing to the stacked milk crate furniture, costume & set design by Betty Auhl reinforce the colourful Gen Z narrative with visual aplomb.

Following a brief intermission to reset the space, Spunk Daddy was the second offering for the evening. Advertised as a staged reading, this was a fascinating snapshot into the author’s highly-active and inventive mind. Created in response to the perils and pitfalls of lockdown, James’ latest piece is as much about queer culture’s diverse spectrum as the intricate process of musical theatre writing itself.

I should quickly mention that Urinetown was another work I happened to see on my vacation interstate. A tale about the right to pee in public, is proof positive that shows can cover any conceivable topic.

A clever hour-long study set to song about the moral implications of sperm donation, Spunk Daddy takes the abovementioned theory and ramps the idea up to eleven. With laser-focussed direction and dramaturgy from Casey Gould, how much is based on the author’s personal experience is unknown. It does, however, give viewers insight into this layered and oddly clinical process.

Engaging text and a toe-tapping score, mix synth pop with standard musical theatre stylings. At times I was reminded of musicians and groups like Mika, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Australia’s own Tim Finn, Tim Minchin and Eddie Perfect.

Dressed in a tight-fitting sailor’s outfit and looking rather like a Pierre et Gilles painting brought to life, James is a highly confident presenter and singer of his own work. Flanked by several nautical props including a ship’s steering wheel, highlights the unchartered territory experienced by this story’s sole narrator. As a bonded collective, both James and the audience are invited to leave their respective comfort zones behind.

Protein and Spunk Daddy share an aesthetic consistency. It should be noted that set and costume design were also by Betty Auhl, with lighting design by Sidney Younger.

In my decade of reviewing, I can only think of several occasions (Electric Dreams by Drew Lane) and (You Won’t Be Seeing Rainbows Anymore by Tom Holloway) where I have seen a work in progress. In this instance, it was a generous touch from the author and the producers to invite viewers for their feedback. I was reminded how television sitcom writers will sometimes rework a scene on the spot in response to a live studio audience’s gut reaction.

Located in Prahran, the MC Showroom is ideal for this kind of project. The black box auditorium allows for an up close and personal experience, like venues such as The Loft at Chapel Off Chapel or the iconic Butterfly Club in Carson Place.

Essentially two sides of the one creative coin, it was fascinating to watch and critique both pieces as a pair. With their ability to work as stand-alone projects, or as part of any alternative, cabaret or comedy festival calendar, here’s hoping a repeat season is considered very soon.

James is a major talent on the ascent, and I look forward to his next project with keen interest.

 

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