As comedy duo Mantaur, Rob Johnson and Harrison Milas are two-time NSW Theatresports Champions and comedians with a taste for the absurd.
We chat to them about life, work, and their upcoming sketch show for Red Line Underground: The Recidivists.
Who – or what – is Mantaur?
Rob: That’s a good question.
Harrison: You’d think we’d have a good answer to it by now.
R: We have a somewhat generic origin story. Harry and I met at Sydney Uni, where we were both performed together a lot.
H: We first crossed paths in a production of Sweeney Todd and realised our mutual passion for scenery-chewing.
R: We were also very lucky that the comedy community at Sydney Uni was so strong while we were there. We had some incredible teachers and mentors who inspired us to take risks and be weird.
H: So we started doing improv together – Theatresports, long form, Fringe Festival stuff.
R: And we sort of organically became a duo.
H: Called Mantaur.
R: Which is just an odd name we thought was funny, really. It’s unrelated to the WWF wrestler – mostly.
You’ve been working as Mantaur for a while. How does it fit with the work you do outside it?
H: Rob works a lot in musical theatre – he’s just wrapped up Gypsy at the Hayes and straight after The Recidivists he’s plugging into Belvoir with Calamity Jane. You got a Sydney Theatre Award nomination for Calamity Jane didn’t you?
R: I did! And a GLUG nomination!
H: So as you can see, his ego is out of control and requires constant deflation.
R: Meanwhile Harry works as a magician when we’re not doing our thing. You just had a sell-out run at the Adelaide Fringe with your new magic show, correct?
R: And won a Weekly Award for Best Magic Show at the Fringe?
H: Also correct.
R: Basically, we’re very good at plugging each other.
What keeps you coming back to Mantaur ?
H: Rob makes me laugh more than anyone else on the planet. Plus he’s outrageously talented and great to work with.
R: Thanks Harry. Harry’s also fine when he’s in a good mood.
H: I’m currently not in a good mood.
R: I think the crossover between us is we click in terms of what we want to say on stage. We’re quite in sync.
H: The interesting thing about Mantaur is we don’t necessarily bring the same energy to it as we do to our separate performing careers. We draw something weird and new out of each other.
R: We can explore themes and characters that we wouldn’t always get to in other projects, which is one of the wonderful things about creating your own work. Not to say that creating your own work is ever easy or not terrifying.
H: Yes, we’re very lucky that we have this partnership and this understanding of one another as performers, which makes the creation of that work slightly less daunting.
And what is The Recidivists about?
R: It’s very loosely based on a show we did at Sydney Fringe four years ago which was quite well received. We liked the core idea of that show …
H: That idea being an exploration of self-destruction … we wanted to look at why people make the same mistakes over and over again.
R: It’s a sketch show, but also a cabaret show of sorts. We bring everything we’ve got to the table – there’s magic, singing, some drag, and quite a few horror elements.
H: But it is definitely funny. When we talk about the show it feels very dark, and I guess it is in a way. We didn’t want to shy away from dark ideas. There’s a lot in there about toxic masculinity and the inability for men to express themselves. That’s something we can both identify with.
R: Absolutely. However as with everything we do, it’s heavy on ridiculousness. So we’re hoping to prompt a little bit of thought about how we treat each other and ourselves, while also making sure the audience laughs a lot.
H: And hopefully shake their heads at the absurdity of some of the sketches.
R: We feel like the Old Fitz is the perfect theatre for The Recidivists, so we’re very excited to be part of the Red Line Underground program with our nightmarish late-night sketch/cabaret comedy show.
H: Not to put the show into a specific box or anything.