Early in his frenetically amazing show, Tim Minchin came to the edge of the stage, looked round at the three sides of the tiered seats of the small Visy Theatre and said quietly, “just checking out my demographic.” And well he might. After battling through a Brisbane stormy night and a half-kilometre walk (or splash) to get there (the Powerhouse car park is less than adequate), when I walked in I too was struck by the “demographic”. I would say that about 75% of the audience was late school-age (surely this couldn’t be an organised school group?), another 20% would have been under 35, and that other 5% was a sprinkling of middle to older age. Strange indeed. Is this what adolescents do after schoolies’ week? So in order to check it out during the interval, I asked the two smart young lads next to me, both in grade 11 it turned out, about Tim Minchin’s appeal for high school kids. Not quite a cult figure, they said, but nevertheless something more than just a plain old rock star, cleverer, more of an edge.
The stage was dark, a lone female voice called out, “I want to see him,” and suddenly he was there, lone spot, a fairly small figure, long overcoat, bare feet, and that amazing face with the heavy eyeliner and back-combed shaggy hair — does he ever comb it properly? As he begins to conduct and bring on the instruments on the soundtrack in a beautifully choreographed and studied bit of mime, the face loses that startled-roo-in-the-headlights look and becomes mischievous and anarchic until three spots follow him frantically around the stage. And then he sings. It’s a pleasant enough voice, and if it weren’t for the material and his prodigious musicianship, he’d just be one among many. But his songs are so witty, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, rude and above all so extravagantly iconoclastic that you hang on every word. And this audience knew most of them, called out for their favourites, and swayed along with them.
In the first song, “I am so rock, I am so mother-fucking rock”, the anthem of a wannabe rock-star, a rock-and-roll nerd, complete with some rather strange gestures — nipple twisting no less — he then demolishes his own self-consciously structured look because, you know, it’s hard for a rock star to keep up: contact lenses, three hours at the hairdressers, the affectation of no shoes, the heavy make-up, the hot overcoat. When he leaps to the piano, the audience roars with a bit of true rock-concert participation, to which he responds with some deliberate off-key bloopers as he twists on the stool, living out his fragile rock persona.
In between he does brilliant stand-up, with sexist bits about ladies who say they’re no good with maps, or jokes like the African-American Jewish Alaskan who asks plaintively, “What is it with you white people and ice fishing?” Duh! Or else he questions one young girl’s tee-shirt slogan, “I’m so perfect, it’s scary”, and launches into a riff about whether it’s self-esteem or irony. Or perhaps looking out of the window of his hotel in NY (he’s just back from a tour in the US) and seeing the sign, “The number one deli in NY”, he asks himself whether goodness in delis is a relative concept, or questions the gap between implied and literal meanings in calling Times Square the centre of the universe.
He questions whether f**k is a counter-productive disguise, whether the “humble asterisk” makes f**k more about fuck than fuck spelled out, or how he likes to use finger as a verb, a doing word. Mmm, yes, it’s all pretty upfront, but it might also be one of the first times school kids have even come across the concept of a verb – unless they’re learning a foreign language, that is. Or his disquisition on religion and his “relative morality”, so that he can change it when he pleases, “hymns have some nice chords, but the lyrics are weird”. Or the value of a long-term relationship and having babies. Or evolution and the first freak to have feet, looking down, “fuck me, they’re going to come in handy”. Or how about the yuck factor in bumper stickers, like “Don’t drive faster than your angel can fly”, or “Magic happens”. So does cot death, he growls.
This show is a blend of Minchin’s two previous shows Dark Side and So Rock, and the songs particularly are familiar to those who have been fans for some time. Why, he’s even been on Spicks and Specks twice — his “Alan Brough Song” and “The Adam Hillsong” are both extras on his DVD of this composite show called So Live (not hard to see the reference) which he spruiked at the end, “I have merchandise”, before he sang his new song about Christmas and commercialisation.
Some of the best known songs such as the wonderful “Inflatable You”, a very funny take-off of old standard ballads like Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” which have taken on a new life with all the corny cover versions around now, or the ultimate in environmental rock opera anthems, “Canvas Bags”, make brilliant use of pop-song clichés, and the rhymes are much cleverer and almost all multi-syllabic. If nothing else, Minchin’s songs celebrate the linguistic richness of the language. “Canvas Bags” ends with him turning on a small wind machine on the floor in front of him, undoing his shirt and saving the world as he throws up his arms and the wind blows his bare chest and hair. Bono and Geldof, eat your heart out. His poem about anger (“I breastfed till I was 9”) mocks the fashion for psychobabble which blends in with his crazy, uncontainable asides. How about another love song, “You grew on me like a tumour”, or his peace anthem for Israel and Palestine, “You like pigs, I like pigs, why don’t we like pigs together”. It’s not exactly PC but, on the other hand, he knows the value of a bit of dry-ice which he uses to exaggerated effect in his song about his dark side. This cheers him up no end, as he grins through the smoke. Pop cliché as therapy. And the last note he strikes on the piano is done with his heel as he leaps onto the keys and the stool tumbles to one side.
There’s a lovely quote from the back of the DVD: “Tim Minchin is without doubt one of the top 7 pianist-singer-songwriter-comedian-actor-pervert-wannabe-rockstars born in Western Australia in the mid-seventies.” He’s won some pretty prestigious awards too, in Melbourne, Edinburgh and the US. I wonder if he would think his “demographic” could include a less-than-youthful grandmother. I’d come along for the ride again, although I’m not much good at the f-word – yet.
Playing Wednesday 12 Dec to Saturday 15 Dec at 8pm, Sunday 16 Dec at 6pm
Duration : 2 hours, with one 20-minute interval.