Satire and social media go hand-in-hand in the 21st century.
So it comes as a surprise to hear that the prime movers of Australia’s pre-eminent and longest-running satirical showcase, The Wharf Revue, don’t do social media. In fact, Drew Forsythe and Jonathan Biggins won’t have a bar of it.
“Neither of us is even on Facebook,” says Forsythe.
“I can’t understand why anyone would be on Twitter anymore,” adds Biggins. “It’s the world of the anonymous commentator, the universal smartarse. We’re looking for more longevity than that.”
So far, the strategy appears to be working. This year’s edition of the Wharf Revue is the nineteenth.
“Sometimes we’re accused of not being tough enough or hard enough on the politicians,” says Forsythe. “Or rude enough. But that’s not what we do. I think we’ve always tried to show the underlying humanity of politics as well as its ludicrousness.”
With the rise of political populism and the ascendency of deeply divisive figures on the international and national stages, satire has developed a strident edge. In 2017, American comedian Kathy Griffin drew fire for posing with a blood-drenched severed head of president Donald Trump. Michelle Wolf gleefully played the man (Trump again) at the now notorious 2018 Washington Correspondents Dinner.
The louder and more strident politics becomes, the more vitriolic the satire.
“We don’t hate,” says Biggins. “I actually pity politicians tremendously.”
So who are this year’s pitiable?
Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash, for starters, a politician whose combative style dominated the headlines earlier in the year. Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton is in the firing line, too (“Prince Charmless,” quips Forsythe). Musical theatre fans will delight to The Book of Corman. And Barnaby Joyce ruled himself in to this year’s show in no uncertain terms.
Audiences can also expect to see a shooting gallery of world leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
And – spoiler alert – Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is making a comeback. “He’s one of those really remarkable figures,” says Biggins. “He was Trump before Trump and even wealthier. He owned the TV networks, he bought the Italian parliament. He even retrospectively changed the law so he could pardon himself!”
“We try to write material that has a long shelf life but you never know, things can change very quickly in politics,” adds Forsythe. “For example, we were working on something about Boris Johnson and then he resigned, which is such a shame because someone like that is just perfect for us.”
Happily or unhappily, depending on your viewpoint, Donald Trump, who made his Wharf Revue debut in 2016’s Back to Bite You, isn’t going anywhere just yet.
“Trump is a gift,” says Forsythe. “With Trump you can just allow him to speak for himself and reveal the fool he is. You don’t have to point it out.”
Biggins, who dons the red wig to play the POTUS, is more ambivalent. “I sometimes worry about giving him too much airtime. The danger in doing Trump is that you humanise him. But then again, he’s too big to ignore.”
When the Wharf Revue was born, as a late night show in 2000, Bill Clinton was the President of the United States and John Howard was Australia’s prime minister.
The Australian Democrats were a political force. Sydney was buzzing with Olympics fever (the Revue team had some very funny suggestions for a mascot, including Biggins as a giant prawn) and New York’s twin towers were still standing.
Much has changed since then, but the Revue – thanks to its core cast’s uncanny ability to mimic public figures and highlight their foibles – goes on, its career eclipsing that of many of the politicians it has lovingly skewered.
Over the years, many of the show’s comic creations have become icons themselves: Biggins’ sneering Paul Keating and grimacing Tony Abbott; Phil Scott’s eerily sunny Kevin Rudd and his pinpoint George Brandis; Amanda Bishop’s accent-perfect Julia Gillard; Forsythe’s Barry Jones and Pauline Hanson.
The titles of past Revues are a history lesson in miniature: 2003’s Sunday in Iraq with George; 2008’s Waiting for Garnaut; 2009’s Pennies From Kevin; 2011’s Debt-Defying Acts.
This year’s show is something of a landmark, however. For starters, The Wharf Revue now finds itself locked out of the theatre from which it takes its name, thanks to the renovations being undertaken at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Millers Point headquarters. Its Sydney season will be performed in the much larger Roslyn Packer Theatre.
And this year’s show will be without one of the Revue’s founders: writer, performer and pianist Phil Scott called time on the show at the end of 2017.
Scott’s shoes are big ones to fill.
“Phil was invaluable in that he could take a piece of music that we came up with and make it work for us,” says Forsythe. “He has a great skill in making words and ideas fit very precisely into songs. Trying to get a word to rhyme, fit the meter, can literally take days.”
Scott’s musical direction duties will be performed by Andrew Worboys, whose career spans musical theatre, cabaret and pop. Scott’s on-stage replacement is actor-pianist Doug Hansell, who co-starred in the 2014 Revue Open For Business and is returning from a long stint in London for the gig.
New also is actor and singer Rachel Beck, the latest in a long line of leading ladies that includes Jackie Weaver, Linda Nagle, Valerie Bader, Genevieve Lemon and Helen Dallimore.
Among Beck’s character list this year is Stormy Daniels, the American adult film performer who hit international headlines when it was revealed she had been paid hush money by Donald Trump’s (now-former) lawyer Michael Cohen.
“I’m bringing some razzle-dazzle,” says Beck. “And I’ve been practising my pole dancing technique.”
She’s also impersonating Michaelia Cash and yes, chortles Forsythe, “she will be making her entrance from behind a white board.”
“My kids already say I’m just like her,” Beck laughs, flashing a convincingly icy stare to bolster her claim.
While everything is just about nailed down in terms of writing, Forsythe and Biggins are keeping a watching brief on world events. The Wharf Revue has to move with the times – even if that means re-writing the show on the run.
“From this point on, we do live in fear,” Forsythe admits. “ I remember the day we arrived in Canberra with a show and that same day Turnbull rolled Abbott. Luckily we had that night to rewrite it but the next night we were on.”
“And I was in the wings prompting,” recalls Biggins. “It was like that last year when the independents in the senate were working out which way they were going to vote. Right in the week before we opened.”
Mostly, though, says Biggins, “when you look back over what we’ve done, the big issues are exactly the same. We’re still talking about tax reform, climate change, Manus Island … it’s frustrating that nothing has changed except the personalities.”
Is change something the Wharf Revue aims to bring about in some small way?
“We’re all bleeding-heart, small-l liberals,” smiles Biggins. “But we’re not in the business of changing people’s opinions. That’s why we can play at Glen St Theatre, which is in Tony Abbott’s seat and in Bronwyn Bishop territory and still get laughs … though they are a bit quieter.
“If we have a sense of mission at all, it’s to provide a release valve for people’s frustration and a sense of bewilderment and to remind them that it’s not the end of the world, it’s just politics.”