The Rise and Disguise of Elizabeth R

Theatre, Musicals
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
The Rise and Disguise of Elizabeth R
Photograph: Supplied/Kate Williams

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

It’s not easy being Queen, but Gerry Connolly makes it look like a laugh and a half

Career retrospectives and character encores are rarely surprising. Nostalgic? Sure. Warm and fuzzy? Absolutely. Maybe a little moving? Why not! But you can’t be excited when you know what to expect.

Unless you’ve shown up to see Gerry Connolly ‘do the queen’ but instead enter the world of The Rise and Disguise of Elizabeth R

Written by Connolly, Gus Murray, and Nick Coyle (the offbeat genius behind plays like The Feather in the Web and ABC Comedy web series Sarah’s Channel) – with additional music by Connolly and Laura Murphy  – Rise and Disguise starts out simply enough: Gerry Connolly is playing Gerry Connolly, and his agent Robyn (Murphy) isn’t dead; in fact, she’s gotten him a bank-account saving gig! But it means playing the Queen. 

Gerry is done with old Lilibet – he’s more than the queen. He’s been playing her for nearly 40 years! He was ready to show his range! – but money talks, and so back he goes into the wig and sensible heels. Then things get weird.

It’s absurd. It’s exciting. And it’s never expected.

Coyle, Murray and Connolly lean into meta-theatrics and common musical theatre and cabaret tropes, both to indulge them and to subvert them – there are secret children, numbers written to cover costume changes, and knowing choreography (by Leah Howard). 

The writers – plus Max Lambert, whose skillful musical theatre composition chops shine through, heavy on the gags and bright tones – know exactly what they’re making: something new from an old persona. The musical is a gamboling, daring piece that skitters from knowing weariness and queer narrative subversion to good ol' impersonation and back again. 

Director Shaun Rennie, who brings his trademark sensitive exploration of identity to the bright side of comedy, has his actors on a gem of a set (by Jeremy Allen) that’s a space where reality could collapse entirely. Murphy and Rob Mallett provide support, backup dancing, and a surprise subplot to the main action. They’re both brilliant here and serve as a necessary contrast to Connolly’s more straightforward Queen performance.

The satire is sharp: you get glimpses of Elizabeth I, Charles, John Howard, Gough Whitlam, a koala who’s really into Meghan and Harry, and more. The laughs are generous, too, operating on multiple levels that the piece moves between like quicksilver, and there’s a true moment of pathos towards the end, when Connolly imagines a Queen who can speak freely to a nation cruelly invaded by her own.

Of course, that isn’t the real ending. No, there’s still a comic button to come, one that might just reset the status quo – because who gets to escape the prisons of our own making? Certainly not someone putting on a career retrospective. Thank god, then, for this wild ride; the most delightful snake eating its own delightful tail. 

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