Her arrest, trial, conviction, incarceration and eventual release kept the nation on the edge of its seat from the moment she was stopped by customs officers at Bali's Denpasar Airport in 2004. And the saga of Schapelle Corby has been doing the same for theatre fans since the 2019 premiere of this musical biopic. Schapelle, Schapelle the comedy musical is back on the Sydney stage for the 2022 Sydney Comedy Festival.
Schapelle, Schapelle is proof that you don’t always need spectacular sets and big budgets to create a musical that hooks the attention of its audience. This is an engaging and well paced production brought to life by a pack of talented performers, with riveting songs and sometimes surprisingly complex choreography, all delivered with good humour. An on-stage band is separated from the action by a hip-height wall of brazenly yellow XXXX tinnies. With front-of-house staff dressed in tropical shirts and decorations crafted from boogie boards and disco balls, the vibe is set.
This show is based on the true events surrounding the Australian woman who set off to Bali with a pocket full of dreams and, whether she knew it or not, a boogie board bag full of marijuana. Schapelle (Kelsi Boyden) and by extension her family are portrayed as naive bogans, concerned for Schapelle’s welfare, loving in their own ways, and occasionally taking up offers like swimwear shoots for lads mags to get by. There’s an endearing air of film classics like The Castle and Muriel’s Wedding to the dag-tastic Australiana of it all. The early 2000s references are that quintessential mix of nostalgia and cringe, with Roxy thongs and knock-off Juicy Couture tracksuits aplenty.
The truth of whether she is actually guilty of her crime is left ambiguous – this show isn’t about the moral or legal realities of Schapelle’s story. The true subject under scrutiny in this satire is the sensationalism of the Australian television media and Schapelle’s ascent as a modern-day folk hero akin to Ned Kelly or Kate Leigh. We follow the inner workings of the “Channel 19” broadcast crew who orchestrate the Schapelle “ganja queen” spectacle, and the lampooning of the Walkley Awards (the Oscars of Aussie journalism) as the “Wokeleys” is a particularly spicy dig.
For all the spoofing and the topics left unprodded, this show weaves in some pathos. We see the toll of years of imprisonment and the media circus on the fictional Schapelle, who is helped through her darkest moment through a halucinatory encounter with two women who know all too well what it’s like to be tormented by the misinformed scrutiny of the media and the public – Julia Gillard and Lindy Chamberlain, of course.
The introduction of the character based on Bali Nine member Renae Lawrence opens up another harsh truth – Schapelle’s position as a conventionally attractive young caucasian woman was a huge factor in earning interest in and sympathy for her fate. If this show was not so innately bound to comedy, you can imagine a theatre adaptation of Corby’s experiences unpacking this knotty issue further, taking to task the overwhelming white privilege that underpinned her elevation by the media to pop culture icon. But even with the narrative hitched to the LOLs, this show does manage to prove a point: as much as Australia is partial to taking down a woman, Australia also loves to idolise a criminal, especially when that criminal is a white person.
References to palm trees in Queensland are definitely a nod to the viral pop song ‘Palm Trees’ featuring the real Corby on vocals. But the music in this production is more complex than the 2018 track mixed by a university student, which Corby shared with her then 200,000 Instagram followers. With songs including 'Queensland’s Not Waiting for You', 'It’s Just Unjust!' and 'Smuggling My Way to the Top', Schapelle, Schapelle was written by NYU-trained composer Tim Hansen along with Gabbi Bolt, Jack Dodds, Mitch Lourigan, Gareth Thomson and Abby Gallaway, who also directs this production.
In the program, Gallaway explains that the script has been edited for each incarnation since its debut as a student production at Charles Sturt University in 2018, eventually adding in more of the human story of the Corby family to balance out the satirical edge for the latest incarnation. There was definitely room to go harder with references to the real Schapelle’s trolling of the media – the unassuming girl next door in this show is a leap from the bogan Bali barbie the media portrayed, it's even a stretch to reconcile the character as someone who would game the system and partake in reality television. But the entire point is really that this show isn’t about the real person at all, and just maybe, no other media portrayals we’ve ever seen are about the real person either.
The cast are clearly all consummate professionals. As the action furthers and the songs become more meaningful, Kelsi Boyden brings some real emotive musical chops to the lead role. Ruby Teys brings great character work to Schapelle’s sister Mercedes. Alice Litchfield is a scene stealer as advantageous broadcaster Dimity, and shows a depth of range in supporting roles. Speaking of range, Emily Kimpton is a dark horse, giving us two sides of the coin as both Schapelle’s mother Rosalie and Renae Lawrence. Gareth Thompson and Mitch Lourigan nail that familiar sense of self-assured, male bravado typical of certain Australia media personalities, and Jack Dodds is convincing as the righteous graduate journalist intern turned sell-out.
Don’t go in expecting a big budget Broadway spectacle, but do expect to be thoroughly entertained and maybe even a little educated. Schapelle, Schapelle plays at Manning House until May 16; book through the festival website.
This production was reviewed at the 2021 Sydney Comedy Festival.