The Wharf Revue 2016: Back to Bite You. Written and created by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott. Musical director Phillip Scott. Sydney Theatre Company. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Until September 24. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.
The Wharf Revue rolls round each year like a returning chariot in Ben-Hur's race. In fact it starts in toga territory, having discovered years ago that the Romans and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar make a very good metaphor for Australian political shenanigans. Grand columns and arches roll up on the big screen, the pollies strut and pose on the surrounding stairs and a grand piano nestles at the heart so that Phillip Scott can strum his parodies.
This sustained sequence of plotting and snarling behind backs with Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott leaping in and out of a range of quickly recognisable parliamentary characters makes for a sustained and funny opening. The togas remain the same, even in the case of Katrina Retallick's powerful Julie Bishop. Scott leavens the snarling with a turn as a cheerful piano-playing plebeian, whose views are rather different to those of the patricians. Malcolm Turnbull remains a mysterious off-stage presence but Forsythe enters the arena as a beautifully belligerent Derryn Hinch.
After this the show becomes a little disjointed, although there are still delights. Fans of the late Bob Ellis will find a melancholy pleasure in Forsythe's gentle little portrayal of Ellis in Heaven and the people (and witticisms) he finds there. Forsythe as an unblinking Senator Pauline Hanson pairs with Retallick as a forthright Senator Jacquie Lambie. Forsythe's Bill Shorten gets elocution lessons a la My Fair Lady. And Biggins as a conspiratorial Tony Abbott takes on the revealing and concealing of fan dancing.
The Brexit sketch, which revives the Carry On crew with a depressing accuracy, becomes less about Brexit and more about the dated quality of the Carry On films. There's a better and verbally adroit sketch concerning a US general explaining in front of a huge map the convolutions of the politics and conflicts of the Middle East. Then it's off to US politics where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and a rumpled Bernie Sanders are at the centre of a longish sequence where Trump is equated with the monstrous plant in Little Shop of Horrors as some old-fashioned Republicans wonder what kind of a monster they may have created.
I was rather hoping for a quick return to the elegantly cutthroat world of Ancient Rome but The Wharf Revue left us with the American election. They have been known before to change the show as events dictate but it could use a stronger ending at the moment. However, a major part of enjoying the Revue is always the performers. Biggins, Forsythe, Scott and the excellent Retallick, a welcome newcomer to The Wharf Revue, do not disappoint.