Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined

Redline Productions in association with the Sydney Festival 2020, present, BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED, text by Reg Livermore, Mary Rachel Brown and Louis Nowra in the Spiegeltent, Hyde Park, Sydney. January 7-26th January.

With the announcement that there was to be a re-imagining of the BETTY BLOCK-BUSTER show/phenomenon that had made its debut in 1975 at the Bijou Theatre in Balmain, confirming Reg Livermore a star - for he had made his mark of ascendancy to the 'stars' in our theatrical heaven as part of the 'Tribe" in the 1969 production of the American musical HAIR, and spectacularly in the first - 1974 - production of the British musical ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW - I, who was there (twice) all those years ago, on one hand reacted with a positive excitement to the nostalgic yearning that BETTY may be made flesh again, but on the other hand had a contrary fear of possible disappointment. Flip-flopping with anxiety in anticipation of the Resurrection of BETTY. Fellow rememberers exchanged hopes and fears.

BETTY was Reg Livermore's conception, and those of us who saw Her remember the occasion as one of those experiences that was a turning point in our lives. The counter cultural revolution that had sprung into being in Carnaby Street in London in the sixties, on the streets of Paris in 1968, or in the Sex-Drugs-Rock 'n Roll movement of the youth in the United States in the anti-Vietnam and Race Protests/Riots for African/American equality and 'Gay' rights, US 60's-70's, seemed to arrive as an authentic expression of our rebelliousness at the BETTY Bijou in Balmain. Her audacious presence awakening some of us in limpid Australia to Go for it. Speak up. Do something.

It was a full decade, at least, after the international shift in the performance language that had resounded around the world before Australian artists caught up. And BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER was the production and performer that dragged the provincial Sydney audiences into a new and thrilling cultural engagement that was a Shock for the New in a uniquely Australian voice. It was in a verbal and visual language of our own. It was vernacular Australian. This production awoke us fully to the power of seeing our culture being perceived through the eyes of one of us with skills, intelligence and courage, with a raw and visceral energy. We felt a definite climax of home-grown revolution radiating out from white-faced, aproned, naked bummed, Betty Blokk-Buster armed with a feather duster as a weapon to sweep the cobwebs of our comfortable life styles away.

There had been some glimmers of an authentic Australian mode of critical style and content on our stages that in my consciousness began in 1970 with the NIDA/Jane St. rambunctious production THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, by Michael Boddy and Robert Ellis (directed by John Bell), followed by the fledgling Nimrod Theatre Company at work in the SBW Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst/Kings Cross under the aegis of John Bell, Richard Wherrett and Ken Horler, who with an authentic set of plays, commissioned from Australian playwrights, spoke to us in a language, vocal and physically, about urgent and cultural issues of our own.

This was a time, I remember, when going to the theatre could be a radical statement, especially, to our parents' generation, that is, they who had participated for long years under the Federal Government of re-elected, re-elected Robert Menzies. It was a palpable thrill and a keen sense of cultural revolution to go to the theatre in Kings Cross around the corner from one of Sydney's most notorious Police Stations watching David Williamson's THE REMOVALISTS (1971) - a play about domestic violence and the brutality and corruption of the NSW Police Force - one wondered, sitting on the wooden benches of the packed theatre, on a hot summer evening, whether we would be 'raided' by the cops and arrested. It was just as thrilling to be watching David Williamson's political/sociological critique in his famous/infamous DON'S PARTY (also, !971, Directed by John Clark). Those were the days when going to the theatre could be dangerous.

On television, in our lounge rooms, the MAVIS BRAMSTON SHOW (1960's) - a political review and sketch show, even an astounding soap-opera called NUMBER 96 (1970's) had prepared us, taken us into a titilating place of dare. They were outrageous - my Catholic upbringing was in shock with the challenge of its upfrontery, and we were excited (and secretive) to confess to our school peers the iconoclastic entertainment we were watching. Those religious mentors, the Marist Brothers would have NOT approved (Well, what did I know about my spiritual guides!) It was confession material:"Bless me Father for I have sinned 6 times this week. I watched Mavis Bramston once and Number 96 five times and had strange revolutionary thoughts especially in bed".

Reg Livermore's BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER live launched us into another stratosphere of cultural revolution. Attention was demanded. Attention is what we gave. Not one of us, who entered that theatre in Balmain (it is no longer there, of course), was the same person when we left it - we had been transformed into much more alert citizens. We had been given courage, as well.

So this new REIMAGINED version in the Sydney Festival was going to be what, like what? Were we in for a contemporary dare of a shock of the new zeitgeist? Were we going to be awoken/provoked to revolutionary stirrings?

Sadly, no, we weren't.

This new version was a kind of homage to some of the icons that were part of the Bijou Show. We were given an impersonation of the redoubtable BETTY in the famous opening routine. We met the complaining 'snitch' - a woman, of course. We were taken back to the memory of Reg's version of Billy Joel's CAPTAIN JACK - swirling cloak et al in a hallucinogenic daze of lighting, stage smoke (as it was called then) and cloth. The band and singers revived WALK ON THE WILD SIDE. (Oh My God, to talk/sing of drugs so publicly, in 1975 was so amazing, today not so much). We recalled the house wife and the smashing of the plates 'tied' to a kitchen sink sketch - the original was more caustic than Dame Edna had ever been - this version in 2020 was without even a wink at the treatment of women in this age of #metoo. No Indigenous observation at all. No pointing to cultural diversity or disability as part of our world experience. This re-imagining of BETTY lacked cultural edginess, unlike the original which was all edge. In this show's content there was barely a twitch of confrontation or dare. It was a comfortable cabaret full of nostalgia, for those of us who remember the original, and of appreciation of the skilled, safe, entertaining cabaret mode in the conservative 2020's for those who were meeting BETTY for the first time. The audience encouraged to stay in their comatose state.

BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED is not a turning point of experience for any audience of 2020. You'll have a nice night in the tent - camping, as you know can be fun. Take your aunty.

New material was written by Rachel Mary Brown and Louis Nowra and perhaps Reg Livermore - he was certainly aware of the show and was a collaborator. However, this new material lacked the flash and dash confrontation of the originals - this content was mildly, even timidly, pleasant and oddly with no resonance of urgent concern for our day-to-day lives - it lacked a vital contemporary observation or critique. We were not incited to 'rebellion' or to even give a simple nose-snoot to our betters. Mr Morrison and his peers were safe from satiric scrutiny. There was no mention of any international or national government flaws. No mention of the most important issue of our times: Climate Change - fire or smoke or destruction of fauna and flora on a catastrophic scale. No comment about refugees or detention centres. No mention of the stark exposure of the corruption in our National Corporations or Institutions, unearthed by a reluctant Governments Royal Commissions and the subsequent crushing of our trust, the demoralisation in the rulers of our laws, of ourselves. Do you remember the time when the Banker and Priest was regarded as a pillar of the community?? - there was no allusion to that destruction of our civilisation as we have known it. Being bereft and without moral anchor is with this BETTY alright, I guess. Not worth mentioning.

The musical program led by Andrew Warboys and his orchestra and support singers/dancers was delivered with panache by the star of this production Josh Quong-Tart. And within the boundaries of the musical and satiric gifts/skills of Mr Quong-Tart , when he was dealing with the idiosyncrasies of his own musical interests - some heavy metal rock - there was an authentic palpable dynamic that was admirable. That was not always true - easily seen - of his homage choices, of Reg's/Betty's choices.

Mr Quong-Tart is a very fine actor - his performance as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's play THE JUDAS KISS, at the Old Fitz, was a brilliant one. Most of his other work has been for middle-of-the-road television. His musical experience, on his internet profile, seems to be relatively limited (a season in THE LION KING). So it is a surprise in the act of faith the Producers and Director has given this artist to bear the responsibility of reawakening audiences to the genius of Reg Livermore. His affectionate homage of the Reg Livermore BETTY was, at least, relatively accurate, if lacking the hutzpah incisive, precise energy of the star quality that Mr Livermore has in spades. Still, has it - note Mr Livermore's extraordinary work as Alfred P. Doolittle (Reg is 82) in the recent revival of MY FAIR LADY.

BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED is an entertaining middle-of-the-road cabaret, in the magical environs of the famous spiegeltent, that fondly unfolds from the proffered hook of revisiting a cherished icon of past years. Craig Ilott Directs with his customary 'smoke and mirrors' sleight/slight of hand (not much depth), supported in a Set Design by Brian Thomson, with costumes by Tim Chappel and the razzle dazzle of Lighting, streaking in the haze, by Trent Suidgeest. Choreography is by Ellen Simpson. Glitz and surface.

What this pleasant cabaret in the balmy atmosphere of Hyde Park does do is insist that you get onto the internet and find the video/film of the original production with Reg Livermore in the full force of his gifts. Youtube it. There it all is. See why BETTY is a Legend and not a myth - you can watch what BETTY was and why she is revered. Mr Livermore's rare gifts startling still today. The discipline and laser like finesse to all he does is incendiary. Mr Quong-Tart does well but not as well as our memories were, or of the actual vision one can google of the recorded original. There is no thrill of cultural shock or dare here. There is a pleasant cabaret with an artist having a go, provoking a justified nostalgia.

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