Moya Simpson and John Shortis perform a set from <i>Prime Time</i>.

Moya Simpson and John Shortis perform a set from Prime Time. Photo: Colleen Petch

Prime Time presented by Shortis and Simpson.
The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. Tickets $29 - $39.
Bookings 6285 6290. May 23 to June 1.

Prime Time is a grand and genial undertaking. The focus is no less that the complete catalogue of Australian prime ministers, starting with Julia Gillard the latest and arriving some two hours later at Edmund Barton the first. Along the track there's over one hundred years of the strengths and foibles and (sometimes) follies of those who have led the country.

John Shortis has written songs for all of them, coming out of his fellowship researches at the Australian Prime Ministers Centre. Playwright John Romeril, also a fellow of this centre, is the larrikin writer and dramaturge behind a show that also involves the down-to-earth Worldly Goods choir and a story inspired by a two-sided T-shirt that had a different PM candidate back and front to accommodate the differing political persuasions of a couple who got married in the Rose Garden at Old Parliament House. And Moya Simpson aids and abets with her singing and humour and conducting of the choir.

Nick Byrne and Kate Hosking play John Henry Strahl and Roberta Strahl nee Quinn, the couple with the two-sided T-shirt and the Rose Garden wedding, who are returning to Canberra to revisit their past. Their personal story tangles at times poignantly with the prime ministerly relics that they visit. Byrne and Hosking make a gentle couple; they sing and play in the band as well.

There's a great collection of visuals as well, with some witty and effective use of projected images on the scrim at the back of Imogen Keen's suitably askew set as well as on the floor. That's where Billy McMahon gets scrubbed away by one of the choir as if he were graffiti and the image of Harold Holt disappears below the waves. Up the back on the scrim is where Paul Keating plans his ''big picture'' (of himself, of the country) in the song Big Picture Man. Behind it is where the choir, costumed in various urban clothes by Keen but all in faded shades of white and cream, blend with a picture of a Depression food queue or evoke the soldier-son gone to war and lost as his mother grieves over his photo on the floor as if it were his tomb.

This is all lovely ambitious stuff that ambles rather too much but intrigues. A final image of the first PM cooking his dinner - eggs over a stove that reeks of kero (and therefore for many of us calling up the rougher heating and cooking of the past) has the touch of humanity that some of the earlier grandstanders lack and Shortis makes a telling moment of it.

Prime Time hasn't quite made up its mind whether it is a concert, revue or a play. But it is a grand, funny and absorbing panorama that wakes us up to some of our own history.