A gut-busting comedy with a refreshingly distinctive Melbourne flavour.
Image: Virginia Gay, Christina O’Neill, Ben Mingay, Keegan Joyce Photo. (c) Jeff Busby.
A heartfelt ballad about an unwanted rescue dog, a real estate agent who furiously masturbates after a high bid, a heated debate about what constitutes a wall or a partition; these are just some of the moments of twisted hilarity to be found in Eddie Perfect’s Vivid White, the final production in Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2017 season. It’s a rather ballsy move to program such a blackly satirical musical comedy but the risk pays off; this is a gut-busting comedy with a refreshingly distinctive Melbourne flavour.
The setup is deceptively simple; old mates Ben (Brent Hill), a struggling comedy performer, and Evan (Ben Mingay), a semi-famous actor and presenter, along with their respective partners Liz (Verity Hunt-Ballard) and Cynthia (Christina O’Neill) both fall in love with the same charming Victorian property in trendy North Fitzroy. After a fierce battle at auction Evan and Cynthia, with the help of their unhinged realtor Brenda (Virginia Gay), buy the house and old friendships are put to the test. Oh, and this all happens against the backdrop of what appears to be an alien invasion by a tentacled beast with the unpronounceable name of Güüs (kind of like ‘goose’) who starts killing off renters in order to create a new world order where property owners rule. There are also lots of songs.
Vivid White is hard to describe, but it’s kind of like a cross between Little Shop of Horrors and classic Australian sketch comedies such as Fast Forward. It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but Perfect uses satire and the musical form to take the piss out of the contemporary housing market, middle-class Australian society and even the notion of satire itself. In the wrong hands this could have easily ended up as a preachy and mean-spirited night at the theatre but Perfect, returning to MTC after his debut play The Beast played in 2013, has found the perfect collaborator in MTC Associate Director Dean Bryant. Under his expert guidance we get an entertaining, deliciously filthy and giddily over the top cracker of a show.
This production is technically ambitious (no spoilers, but there are lots of special effects) and Bryant goes to town parodying different musical theatre conventions. The result are songs like the Rodgers and Hammerstein-esque wheelie bin ballet that opens act two; Cynthia’s final number, which has a power-ballad Les Misérables vibe, and the exuberant curtain call number which filters A Chorus Line through a hip hop appropriation lens as the predominantly Caucasian cast dance around in gold leather hoodies and track pants. But for all the splashy silliness on stage Bryant is also a master at clear storytelling. He constantly draws the audience’s attention to the focus of a scene ensuring that important moments stand out and the heart of the piece shines through.
The second act drags on a tad too long and the final, bluntly delivered message is a bit of a downer, but overall Vivid White is a pisser of a good time.
Perfect’s songs are irresistibly melodic and the lyrics acerbically witty. The score runs the genre gamut from rock power ballads to simple lullabies. The ‘Soft Close Drawers’ song is a particular highlight and almost stops the show. The multi-talented cast includes some of the best musical theatre actors in the country, backed by an ensemble of young performers from the VCA, and they are put through their paces in this high energy production. Most of the actors play multiple characters; they sing, dance, operate puppets and even play instruments in the onstage band. They must be exhausted but what a great showcase of their incredible talents.
The production suffers from a bit of an identity crisis at times. In the press the creative team have been at pains to make it clear that Vivid White is not a musical, it’s been described as everything from a ‘play with songs’ to a ‘song-filled show,’ and this lack of definition causes some problems. The band is constantly whisked on stage atop two gliding platforms every time a song begins, the actors either performing out front with a handheld microphone or delivering their vocal performance within the onstage action. They are sometimes costumed in 90’s parachute pants and jackets (mirroring Ben and Evan’s old comedy getups) and there are a few messy moments as the actors take their place on the platforms and pick up their instruments. At other times the songs are integrated into the scenes naturally, as in the strangely moving ‘Hand Song’ at the end of act one, and these moments work better. Vivid White might not want to be a musical, but it pretty much is one.
Eddie Perfect is leaving our shores to tackle to two big Broadway projects; a musical version of Beetlejuice and a revamped King Kong. Our loss is the Americans' gain as he is surely one of the most inventive, intelligent and humorous writer/composers working in theatre today.
Although not without its flaws, Perfect and Bryant have created a hilarious and ambitious mishmash of a show with Vivid White and this production is a fun way to see out 2017. It would be very interesting to see where this new creative partnership could go next. Eddie, come back!
3 ½ stars out of 5
By Eddie Perfect
Directed by Dean Bryant
Featuring Gillian Cosgriff, Virginia Gay, Brent Hill, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Keegan Joyce, Ben Mingay and Christina O’Neil
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
18 November – 23 December
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level