For more than 2 decades, The Wharf Revue has delivered razor-sharp political satire to audiences in Sydney and around the country. Now it’s finally Melbourne’s turn with The Wharf Review – Pride in Prejudice – the latest creation from Jonathan Biggins and the team who created the 2021 smash hit The Gospel According to Paul at Arts Centre Melbourne.
“The latest offering is more of a play on words that reflects the subject matter rather than a take on Austen’s book itself,” says co-writer Jonathan Biggins. “Phil Scott came up with the title – we’ve had a lot over the years from Sunday in Iraq With George to last year’s Looking for Albanese. Although we do start with an Austen-esque sketch which deals with the way people continue to take pride in their bigotry and the notion that now some people are more offended by being accused of racism than practising it”
Ever since the team began in 2000, the Revue has been largely focused on political issues. One of the strengths has been the impersonations of political figures from here and abroad. “We sort of see ourselves as three-dimensional political cartoons and the audiences really enjoy seeing familiar figures pilloried – or fondly evoked, as we did with Bob Hawke in heaven after he died,” says Biggins. “And as it turned out, in this year of the Voice and the dog-whistling of certain politicians, prejudice was a very apt theme.”
Co-written by Drew Forsythe, Philip Scott and Biggins the process involves bringing ideas to the table quite early and then either writing individually, in pairs or all three together.
Biggins explains, “Most of the lyrics (which are always the hardest part) are written together but certain characters are written by the individuals who play them – Drew always writes Pauline Hanson, I’ve always done Keating and so on. I usually write for Mandy Bishop’s solo pieces like Jackie Lambie. Then everything is put into the mix and if there’s too much we have the painful process of deciding what has to go – always tricky in a democracy! The running order of the show is a hard one as well because it’s often dictated by the costume changes, always difficult going from a sketch with all four on stage into something else but we do have a video component that can bridge those gaps.”
This new work started about March, while the team were still performing the previous show, and then opened in Canberra (their spiritual home) in October 2023 after a four-week rehearsal period. “Obviously we weren’t writing five days a week, but the challenge is selecting issues that have the legs to last for six months after the show’s opened,” says Biggins. “We can (and have had to) change things on the run to reflect new political realities like leadership spills but by and large the show remains the same. It’s funny how slowly things actually move in politics – there’s a lot of noise but not much happens in the short term. Some of the things we were talking about in the first year are still ongoing – “illegal” immigration, climate change, instability in the Middle East; the list goes on.”
Having been at the company’s core for much of the two-plus decades of its existence, Biggins says one of the most enjoyable things about doing the Wharf Revue is the revue format itself – “it allows us to show off a range of skills; singing, a bit of dancing (less with age), sketches and monologues that move quickly and never give the audience a chance to get bored.
It also gives a huge variety of genres to use as vehicles for the satire – musical theatre, opera, Shakespeare, popular culture, films, TV shows, familiar songs etc. Add to that the immediacy and familiarity the audience has with the subject matter and the response is immediate – and largely similar across the political divide. We play a season at Glen Street theatre which is right in the middle of Tony Abbott’s old electorate and they’ll laugh just as much as an audience in Wollongong or Nunnawadding. In terms of what we can get away with, that’s constantly evolving and we’re mindful of changing sensibilities but never feel pressured to self-censor. Because even the new puritanism is a worthy target for satire.”
A man of many hats, Biggins juggles co-writer, co-director and performer in the show. “The great joy is that it’s all our own work and no-one tells us what to do,” he says explaining the relative ease of not only owning many hats but wearing them all at the same time. “Even when we were with the Sydney Theatre Company we were largely left to our own devices. And because we’ve been working as a small ensemble for so long, we have a creative shorthand that extends to the crew who put the shows together and keep them on the road. Direction and design are collaborative and we have great people in lighting and wardrobe who all understand the process and know that the show is going to evolve pretty quickly and grow organically in the rehearsal room. And we usually manage to maintain a sense of fun – what’s the point of doing it if you don’t enjoy it? ”
The genesis of the company came at the time of Robyn Nevin becoming artistic director of the STC. She commissioned the crew (Biggins, Forsythe and Scott) to do a late-night revue on the set of whatever show was in the Wharf theatre at the time. The three had originally met on an ABC TV satirical show called The Dingo Principle and had gone on to do cabaret shows like Three Men and a Baby Grand which was also made into a TV series. But Nevin wanted more of a political bent and the show has moved in that direction to be exclusively political. “It’s a handy formula because the source material is always the same but different – just like Roy and HG found with sport,” says Biggins.
The show eventually grew in popularity and moved into a theatre in its own right at the saner hour of 8pm and then just kept going and began touring as well. “We’d take time off to do other things, but we tried to ensure there were at least two of the originators in each show. Over the years we’ve had some fantastic actors join the company – this year Phil’s taken time off and we have David Whitney and Michael Tyack joining us. And Mandy Bishop, who’s been the longest serving female member of the ensemble. But what’s kept it going is the audience – they really enjoy the release valve that comedy is. Even the politicians we’re portraying come and see it. I guess it’s part of that long Australian tradition of not taking ourselves too seriously, the knockabout vaudeville tradition joined to something a little more cerebral, and if you can have an audience thinking and laughing at the same time, you’re onto a winner.”
But how does Biggins keep the fire in the belly alive after 20+ years in the business?
“Now that we’ve added co-producers to the credit list, the money is an excellent incentive! And I suppose because we’re basically actors, we use those skills to keep it fresh like any actor in a long running show. The old adage of it’s the first time the audience has seen it even though you’re on performance 112. And having to change things as we go keeps you on your toes – we opened in Canberra the night after Turnbull rolled Abbott so that was a night of re-writes and rehearsal and desperately hoping we could remember the new material.”
As for the next ten years, well, there’s only going to be another one, Biggins reveals. “We’ve made the decision that the next show will be our last; try to go out while we’re vaguely near the top.”
Pride in Prejudice will see Biggins and Forsythe on stage, joined by Mandy Bishop and David Whiney, with Andrew Warboys providing music.
Says Biggins, “If you want a fast-paced, funny show with a lot of variety and a bit of depth thrown in, this is for you. It helps if you know a bit about politics but even if you don’t, I guarantee you’ll be entertained.”
February 12 – 24