Photo by Ross Waldron
First produced in 2003 by Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre Company (now the Malthouse), Tom Wright’s Babes in the Wood was a 21st century take on the colonial pantomime tradition, spiralling out of control into a hallucinogenic cornucopia of disreputability. Now, 13 years later, Don’t Look Away have returned to the woods of the Old Fitz after their Inner Voices earlier in the year, with something approximating a sequel but also a more contemporary reinterpretation of the panto tradition. 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, heckling the performers and throwing cabbage. What’s not to love?
Babes in the Woods is the story of orphaned twins Ruby and Robbie who arrive on their wicked aunt Avericia’s doorstep with a fortune to 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.
Don’t be deterred by the mention of pantomime – while our current idea of it as a limp-wristed and vapid tradition dates from the 1960s, colonial pantomime was much rougher and “political, transgressive, titillating, irrational and magical,” as Rouse says.
The tiny theatre is decked to the walls with red, gold, and silver tinsel, 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 is an appropriately dazzling backdrop for her costumes – a mashup of period crinolines and ringlets with plaid, short-shorts, lederhosen, mullets, and Merv Hughes-style moustaches. Plus a gloriously thick-witted emu called Flapgherkin.
Sian James-Holland’s lighting is richly coloured, merrily enriching the festive atmosphere but also gently guiding the audience to their appropriate reactions (Applause; Boo/Hiss; It’s Behind You!; Get on With It!) and using 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. Annie Byron’s Aunt Avericia (a woman playing a man playing a woman) is marvelously over the top in the panto dame mode; Alex Malone and Ildiko Susany’s Ruby and Robbie are hilariously naïve; Gabriel Farncourt’s Phyllis is (initially) the picture of a 19th 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 the scenes are always stolen by Eliza Reilly in her roles as Avericia’s emu-sidekick Flapgherkin (one of the simplest but goofiest puppets I’ve seen) 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, there are some subtle and not so subtle digs at our current societal attitudes and behaviours towards refugees, immigration, white privilege, critically-acclaimed theatre (The Secret River is the butt of a rather complicated and extended joke which ties itself in knots but plays right into Sydney’s lap), cultural cringe, 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.
Where the villains of the traditional panto were the monsters and the adults, in the Australian panto tradition, the villains were more often than not the bush, the untameable landscape we found ourselves transplanted into. In his 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 brilliantly, and we laugh not 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 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, it’s been a long time. And even though it is the silly season, and even though you do get to throw cabbage, 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.”
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Babes in the Woods
Director: Phil Rouse
Written by: Phil Rouse, after Tom Wright
Musical Director/Composer: Phillipe Klaus
Producer: Anne Britto
Lighting: Sian James-Holland
Designer: Martelle Hunt
Cast: Annie Byron, Sean Hawkins, Gabriel Fancourt, Alex Malone, Ildiko Susany, Eliza Reilly
Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo
13 – 21 December 2016, 6 – 21 January, 2017