Breaking into the housing market becomes a matter of life and death in Eddie Perfect’s bloodthirsty new musical satire
Eddie Perfect burst onto Melbourne stages in the mid-noughties with Drink Pepsi, Bitch – a solo satirical cabaret show that announced him as a brilliantly funny and acerbic vaudevillian – and he never looked back. He reached a cultural high-water mark in 2008 with Shane Warne: the Musical, which showcased his particular talent for good-natured skewering of local sacred cows. But Perfect – with his long-standing role in the middle-brow TV show Offspring and what now looks like a regular gig as an MTC playwright – has been in danger of becoming the very thing he used to target so mercilessly: an ossified Aussie icon.
His last play for this company, The Beast, had some major problems but at least it was funny and shocking. His new play, Vivid White, is a nadir for Perfect, but also one of the weakest things MTC has programmed in years. Despite the talent and resources poured into the production, it’s misguided and rarely funny.
The Beast had as its target the upwardly-mobile penchant for nose-to-tail eating and all the middle-class Gen-X pretensions this implied. This time it’s the Australian obsession with the housing market that draws Perfect’s ire, and it’s a palpably good topic for ridicule. The central conceit is that two couples who’ve been friends for a long time, Ben (Brent Hill) and Liz (Verity Hunt-Ballard), and Evan (Ben Mingay) and Cynthia (Christina O’Neill), fall out over the house they both want to buy. Soon, all renters find themselves marginalised as a kind of apartheid takes hold and Ben and Liz find themselves at the mercy of a military crackdown. The play takes the anxiety of renting and exaggerates it into a kind of class warfare, with an alien invasion subplot that eventually hijacks the entire play. It’s like an unholy cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Rick and Morty.
All of which would be fine if it were even halfway funny. Early scenes with real estate agent Brenda (Virginia Gay) priming Evan and Cynthia on their auction techniques are hard going, and not because the actors aren’t working their arses off. There is simply nothing recognisably human about these people – the first thing Brenda says to her clients is “I can’t stand poor people” – which means the satire has no chance to gain traction. We’re presumably meant to feel for the ‘losers’ Ben and Liz, but given they can afford to bid $1.2 million for a house in North Fitzroy and are crushed when it goes for $1.5, sympathy is hard to harness. Perfect can write songs, and some of them are gorgeous, but too many of them – Evan’s “rescue dog” song, for example – come across as digressive.
There are only three moments in the show that demonstrate the sheer genius of Perfect at his best: an ode to humanity called ‘Hands’ that is sung by huddled renters trying to avoid decampment; a magnificent German kabarett song called ‘Soft-Closing Drawers’ that Gay sings between bursts on a trombone (thank the theatre gods for Virginia Gay!); and an eleven o’clock number by O’Neill that absolutely nails our tendency to buy and sell and remake and destroy in our insane march to ‘wealth creation’. These moments give a glimpse of what might have been, but they’re largely drowned out by the play’s scattergun approach to its targets and inadequate characterisations.
The cast are troopers, and Perfect magnanimously gives each of them moments to shine. Mingay is charged and charismatic as the wavering ponce Evan, and O’Neill is delicious as the awful Cynthia. Hill and Hunt-Ballard struggle with the nominally sympathetic Ben and Liz mainly because they aren’t sympathetically written, while Gay, Gillian Cosgriff and Keegan Joyce bring heaps of energy and panache to a variety of roles. Owen Phillips’ set design – along with Tim Chappel’s costumes and Ross Graham’s lighting – is so busy, dazzling and expensive it starts to look desperate. Dean Bryant’s direction is equally insistent and heavy-handed, pushing forward precisely when he should be pulling back.
It’s hard to know just who Vivid White is for; not for the actual renters out there, who couldn’t afford a ticket let alone a deposit on a house, and would most likely find the humour smug and self-congratulatory; not for the ensconced homeowners of inner-city Melbourne, who would surely see the piece as a fond reminder of past anxieties and preoccupations; certainly not for the mega-rich, who’d look down on the whole idea as preposterous and vulgar. Perfect spends half the play ‘mansplaining’ the concept of satire – which is presumably meant as an in-joke but is actually just eye-rollingly tedious. If he’d created real recognisable characters and slowly turned up the heat on them, this might have worked. As it stands, it’s rather like our property market: extortionate, and ludicrous.