Camperfied corruption

An Ideal Husband (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 18 – August 6

A ‘Barbie Girl’ and ‘Ice Ice Baby’ et al pre-show soundtrack immediately acquaints the audience at La Boite Theatre’s reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s social satire, “An Ideal Husband”, particular those who may be unaware of the concept behind the ‘90s aesthetics underpinning this Australian political romp. Fashion details of the era are also peppered throughout the play, with Chloe Greaves’ costume design reminding us of tiny backpacks, berets, chokers, plaid mini-skirts and alike. And with faxes, Microsoft’s Clippy and discmen, there is an authenticity that brings a comforting nostalgic familiarity to those of an appropriate vintage.

More specifically, or maybe not, the reimagining of Wilde’s drawing room comedy is set in 1996-ish, Canberra-ish, in the lead-up to the federal election. Sydney-based Arthur ‘Artie’ Whig (Will Carseldine) has been invited to the capital for his father to announce that Artie is being cut off financially; the only way to continue living entirely at his own pleasure is for him to find a job and get married. Enter Artie’s friend Mabel Lloyd (Billy Fogarty) who in response to her own matrimonial anxiety suggests they should be wed, given that her ideal husband is a homosexual she can trust.

When the two socialites attend an endangered lizard fundraiser, political dealings are revealed as we are introduced to both Artie’s friend, the Labour Member for Brisbane and Minister for the Environment Robyn Shi (Hsiao-Ling Tang) and her passionately-idealistic intern turned adviser turned romantic partner Gertrude Chiltern (Emily Burton).

Meanwhile journalist Douglas Harris (an endearing Kevin Spink) is on the hunt to validate a story tip-off and become more acquainted with Whig, until things are complicated by the appearance of extravagant and unpredictable former Prime Minister’s widow Dame Tara Markby (Christen O’Leary) and her recently returned to Australia relation Lucian Chevely (Patrick Jhanur), former lover of Whig.

Playwright Lewis Treston’s story of blackmail and corruption within the ‘complex business of politics’, is brilliant, not only through its queer makeover of the original text’s relationships, but its dip into contemplation of bigger, still relevant political ideas, including around ideas of gender and sexuality. And it is a joy to watch the work’s performers enliven the script and interact with each other’s characters through Neridah Waters’ choreography and Nigel Poulton’s movement, intimacy and fight direction.

The strong cast more than delivers on expectations. Indeed, there are no weakness amongst their pitch-perfect performances, which all display a sure sense of timing. As Shi, Tang appropriately captures the cadence of political rhetoric in her sound bite worthy speeches and responses to questions around her friendship association with mining magnate and major fundraiser donor Tina Topaz (Christen O’Leary). Carseldine conveys a charming easiness, befitting the protagonist’s leisurely lifestyle and O’Leary’s women’s brunch speech as a falling-apart former ‘first-lady’ is a joy to behold in its crescendoing hilarity. Burton, too, gives audiences a similar highlight in Gertrude’s indigent rant about the legitimacy of her school captain reign to former school colleague Chevely, who now works for Topaz.  

Things pace along, and not just through the biting Wildean wit within the dialogue of the story’s love triangle and political scandal plotlines. Under Bridget Boyle’s snappy direction, scenes almost overlap in terms of exits and entrances, which tempos things along even before Act Two’s avalanche of comings and goings and slammed doors bedroom farce antics. What elevates it beyond just these typical tropes, however, is the comedy also of its little moments, of looks and reactions, especially from Carseldine in response to the chaos of Act Two’s absurdity.

Jason Glenwright’s lighting design and Guy Webster’s compositions and sound design work together to fill the story’s world with an engaging vibrancy. Even scene changes become dynamic in choreography as comical John Howard clones coordinate setting changes. And Greaves’ creative set design staging allows for the creation of even a House of Representatives from which the audience can watch the work’s political debates first-hand. Justin Harrison’s video design also works to set the story in its ‘ish’ time and place. On screen additions set the context of, for example, flying with Ansett, and allow for an appreciated (and very funny) epilogue of what has happened to the characters after their worlds have exploded.  

Oscar Wilde’s sometimes savage witticisms flow naturally from everyone’s mouths, which gives a buoyancy to the play’s rhythm and this is balanced by the easier humour that comes from the recognisable character types of Artie’s National Party politician father and member for Dawson, whose speech is full of hyperbolic similes, and O’Leary’s Act Two appearance as the extroverted and ostentatious mining magnate Tina Topaz.

This energetic comedy of manners and morals is a wickedly funny show in its campy humour and political rompery, so much so that some lines are unfortunately lost under the resulting waves of opening night audience reaction, if laughing too much is really even a bad thing.

Photos – c/o Morgan Roberts