Trevor Ashley brings back the panto, taking on Whitney and a certain Australian Idol contestant
This is a review of the 2017 Sydney season of The Bodybag.
Nothing is sacred in Sydney drag-comedy stalwart Trevor Ashley’s new adults-only panto, not least the pop culture it skewers and spoofs: American thrillers, pop divas, jukebox musicals and British pantomime.
The Bodybag follows former Australian Idol runner-up and Logie-less TV talent Rachel Marinade (Ashley) as she faces the challenges that are part and parcel of being a slightly adored diva.
The first big problem: she’s recently been found guilty of bribing a government official for a fake driver’s licence and has been suspended from driving. The second: she has caught the attention of a creepy and violent stalker, and desperately needs protection. At just the right moment, in walks Tank Charmer (Gus Murray), a hunky former ASIO security officer and now Uber driver. Rachel suddenly has transport and a bodyguard in one.
Those with a keen eye – well, those with any of their five senses working – may note some similarities between the premise of this panto and a certain Whitney Houston-led movie from the early 1990s. You might also be reminded of the recent stage musical version of the film, starring an Australian Idol contestant who has had similar problems with her driver’s licence.
But Ashley is careful to never mention the B word: “Bodyguard”.
This is Ashley’s third Christmas panto written with cabaret satirist Phil Scott – who’s currently across town in his final year of Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Revue – after Fat Swan (2012) and Little Orphan Trashley (2013). The Bodybag is definitely the funniest of the three, and also the scrappiest, fuelled largely by its thrown-together charm.
There are plenty of laughs, ranging from very silly sight gags to up-to-the-second political material, jokes that are specifically for those in-the-know about Sydney’s theatrical scene, and puns that’d make your dad wince. Ashley applies his fearless humour to everything from Tony Abbott to local TV stars, theatre producers, Safe Schools and even the exact circumstances of Houston’s tragic death; it may not be right, but it’s ok. Well, only just.
Jokes about Harvey Weinstein, Don Burke, Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer are almost certainly a little too soon. It’s not that they’re hugely offensive; it just doesn’t feel like most of the audience is ready to laugh about this subject. And they’re not really funny enough to justify inclusion.
As with any panto, you should go prepared to participate in a variety of ways, and warn the heroine when the villain is lurking behind her. (Although you won’t be calling out the type of warning you would’ve done at the pantos your gran took you too.)
In addition to comic timing, Ashley has an uncanny ability to get and keep an audience onside, breaking the fourth wall and leading them through this unlikely tale. And while this show doesn’t exactly feature his finest vocal moments, the songs – Whitney’s hits, a touch of Mariah and the musicals Chess and Dreamgirls – add brightness and even more comedy.
Ashley is wonderfully supported by American musical theatre actor and vocal powerhouse Markesha McCoy as Rachel’s devious sister, and Gus Murray as the hilariously stern-faced bodyguard. Heath Keating dances impressively, stepping into a dizzying number of roles, and youngster Nicholas Craddock is perhaps the sassiest and coolest person on stage – and also the worst nightmare of any Safe Schools opponent.
Not that any Safe Schools opponent is likely to show up at one of Ashley’s shows. This is a lovingly crafted panto that knows exactly who its audience is. For Sydney’s LGBTQIA community (well, mostly gay men) and their allies, this is a wonderfully trashy Christmas treat.