(Photos by Mark Nolan)
The songs are polished. The transitions are smooth. The jokes are
practised. The caricatures are deftly drawn. They are now at the
end of a lengthy tour of Debt Defying Acts!,
which is now playing in Wharf 1, but even by the time The Wharf
Revue team first hit the stage with this new production, months of
steady, detailed work had already taken place to create the
well-oiled show that has become a Sydney institution.
It all began 12 years ago, when Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and
Phillip Scott banded together to create an all-singing, all-dancing
variety show of sketches and mayhem. After more than a decade of
honing the concept, the team have the routine down pat. They begin
brainstorming concepts and coming up with possible sketches several
months out from the start of rehearsals, although they have
discovered that it is unwise to begin the process too early.
"We start actually writing the show only about two months before we
begin rehearsals," says Scott. "Any earlier and it goes out of date
too much. Then we work on it right up to the last minute and change
things around in the rehearsal room. Then it's quite fluid, even
when we're on the road [touring the show]. It's really a work in
progress the whole time."
Each season the trio invite a female performer to join their
troupe, and past honorary members of the revue have included
Valerie Bader, Genevieve Lemon and Helen Dallimore. This year, for
the third time, they have welcomed Amanda Bishop on board. She has
her work cut out for her, as in Debt
Defying Acts! she has been scripted to play a
range of characters including Kristina Keneally and Julia Gillard,
the character for which she has become famous. Plus the team threw
a few surprises at her this year by writing a script requiring her
to play figures including Rebekah Brooks and a French
"We don't usually discuss the show before we do the initial cold
read [of the script at the first rehearsal]," says Bishop.
"Sometimes they will mention what characters I might be playing,
which is good for research. The process is so fun."
Once the four-week rehearsal period begins it is all systems go.
Biggins, Forsythe and Scott all direct the show, with Scott
doubling up as musical director, but they also take on the roles of
set and costume designers with the help of the ever-enthusiastic
STC production staff.
"We design the show ourselves, and sometimes we are designing it on
the run so we can't praise the production departments at the STC
enough," says Forsythe. "They've just been fantastic. They see us
coming and say 'You're back again! What can we do this year? Who
are we taking the piss out of this year?'"
One of the keys to the design of the show is functionality, as many
of the set and costume changes have to happen at a brisk
"We try to help each other where we can for quick changes," says
Bishop. "There is a fair bit of 'underdressing' going on, where we
are wearing the costume underneath for a sketch later on."
Frantic changes take place back stage, hidden from the audience's
prying eyes, but the team insist this smoke and mirrors effect is
essential to the show.
"A revue is like a duck swimming," says Biggins. "You don't see the
furious paddling going on underneath. There are a lot of costume
changes and the activity backstage is very frenetic because we try
to keep it going as quickly as possible and we want to try to stay
ahead of the audience."
This year the audience is in for a treat, with sketches in
Debt Defying Acts!
covering topics as diverse as the backstabbing fight for power
taking place within the ALP, the impending dissolution of the
Murdoch empire, a study of the Greens and what they really think, a
flashback to the tumultuous era of the French Revolution and the
gun-slinging politics of the NSW State Government.
After performing together in such intense circumstances for so many
years, Biggins, Forsythe and Scott have come to know one another
intimately, and to be aware of each other's strengths and
weaknesses on stage, such as Scott's tendency to stress about the
frequent, high speed costume changes required to pull of the
"I'm on stage a lot of the time playing the piano so I don't get a
lot of time to make my changes," explains Scott. "I'm no good at
making quick changes. I can't do up a button."
However his two collaborators are having none of this, and Forsythe
quickly chimes in to set the score straight.
"But he can play Flight of the
Bumblebee at the drop of a hat," he says.
Since its humble beginnings 12 years ago, the revue has become
increasingly political, and now focuses heavily on local, state and
federal issues and politicians in Australia. This presents a
challenge for the team, as much can (and does)change from the time
they begin writing the show through the rehearsal period to the end
of their touring schedule six months later.
This means they must be nimble with their ideas and ready to change
sketches, cut ideas or write new material at any time, although
they have come to realise that change is not always
"When you've done it for 12 years you realise that one of the odd
things about political satire is that some things don't change at
all," says Biggins. "There are issues we continue to talk about:
global warming, boat people, the Middle East. Who've thought that
12 years after the Tampa we'd still be talking about boat people?
This becomes a bit tedious because a week might be a long time in
politics but sometimes 10 years is not. The difficulty becomes not
to revisit these ideas if we've done them in the past. We have to
find something else."
Scott agrees, and points out that keeping a close eye on the daily
ebb and flow of politics is an essential, if often unrewarding,
part of the job.
"Politicians make it much harder for us because they are much more
focused on the day to day trivia than they used to be," says
Scott. "Issues used to have a few months of public
credibility but now it's all about polls and everything changes
every five minutes."
The Wharf Revue: Debt Defying
Acts!, Wharf 1, from 17 November, 2011, and Wharf
2, 9-19 February, 2012.