Ben Gerrard stars in Jonathan Tolins' one-man comedy about Barbra Streisand, her basement shopping centre, and celebrity culture
Here’s a novel storage solution from the one per cent: be like Barbra Streisand and stock your belongings in an old-timey shopping mall in your mansion’s basement. Yes, this is for real: one of the greatest living legends of American song has built a mall to store her expensive excess crap. This is the setting for Jonathan Tolins’ tightly constructed, generously funny one-man play Buyer and Cellar. As protagonist Alex More (played here by Ben Gerrard) says in the play’s fourth-wall breaking introduction, “What if somebody had to work down there? Jon, the playwright we don't care about, became obsessed with this idea. About an actor who gets the job. A character that I could play.”
And so Alex, freshly fired from Disneyland for giving a kid attitude while in character as Roger Rabbit, is recommended for the ridiculous gig (based on previous retail experience). The next thing he knows, he’s dusting down the shelves of Barbra’s doll shop and manning her frozen yoghurt stand. The first time he meets Barbra, she’s role-playing as a customer looking for a deal. Before long, Alex gives himself over to the delightful surreality of his new boss and his new job. Sure, the commute to Malibu is a nightmare. Sure, he’s alone down there for days at a time. Sure, it makes Barbra’s ‘relatable working class girl from Brooklyn’ shtick a little harder to buy. But Alex doesn’t care.
That last point really gets to Alex’s boyfriend Barry (Gerrard shifts into a broader-shouldered, lower-voiced stance when Alex recreates their conversations). Brooklyn born and raised too, he has no time for a celebrity profiting off the struggle of the working class. Tensions rise between him and Alex as Alex’s obsession with Barbra grows, and grows, and grows...
Buyer and Cellar is knowing, droll, and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also a sly critique on the cultures of celebrity and consumption, directed here, by Susanna Dowling, with a deceptively light touch. The set (by Charles Davis) and lights (by Alex Berlage) are a confection of pinks, painting a warm, old-fashioned pastel background for Gerrard’s conspiratorial, witty performance. But the script is the real gem: it’s tightly written and intelligently structured, with a strong narrative arc and sparkling dialogue. It’s comfortably constructed within the intersection of both old- and new- school gay culture; the in-jokes and references are sharp and numerous, and Dowling has Gerrard toss these at us off the cuff, assuming we’re all well in on the joke. (Don’t fear: the program contains a glossary of references in case you don’t know your Cecil Beaton from your Candy Spelling).
Gerrard’s performance as Alex – supplemented by conversations with everyone from house manager Sharon (who, he says, “looks like she’s been through it”) to Barry and Barbra – is supple and charming, relaxing nicely over the course of the show to become buoyant and even a little thrilling. Once he’s warmed up, we’re a willingly captive audience.
At the end of the show, when Gerrard took his bows, the set lit up with a riot of rainbows and the word “Yes!”. It’s a reminder that entertainment and politics are necessarily, urgently intertwined during this postal vote period: how can they be separated, when Buyer and Cellar celebrates gay culture but equal rights for gay Australians are unsecured? It’s the perfect way to send audiences out of this play and into the world – a little lighter, a little happier, and reminded to post back their yes vote ASAP.