Written by Gary Young
Composer and musical director Paul Keelan
Behind every laughing clown is a human tragedy, they say, and travelling sideshows and circuses, especially when presented in film and literature, often have a sinister underbelly.
Think of early musicals like Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1945 Carousel with its cast of wasters and petty criminals, and Kern and Hammerstein’s even earlier Showboat of 1928 which, under its sentimental exterior, is a tragedy with shifty villains and a wretched heroine.
And in 2003 the seriously spooky Carnivale hit our television screens, sending many of us terrified to bed every Sunday night to dream of the creature of the light and the creature of the darkness. It’s all a long way from the frivolity of the Ekka, and although Young and Keelan’s new Australian musical Sideshow Alley doesn’t have supernatural undertones nor specifically evil characters, it does have its full measure of sadness and despair, for Tiny’s (Michael Bishop) troupe is a refuge for freaks, misfits and escapees from real life, and each one has their own sad secret past.
The androgynous Lady Chiang (Darren Natale) is the most inscrutable of them all, and never discards her half-male half-female attire (the Japanese-lady half-wig is a triumph of design), and the only really cheerful member of the troupe is the brilliantly energetic Emma Hawkins, a Little Person (or, as the crew call her, the Tiny Miniscule Marvel) who, both in her role as Dolly Dot the shepherdess and in her good-natured joshing around the fire, provides a genuine note of cheer among a miserable lot of losers.
Young seems determined to make this musical as up-to-date by using every possible sexual combination and permutation, from cross-dressers to trannies and even – shades of Brokeback Mountain! – a homosexual encounter between the two tough-as-guts boxers in the troupe (Christopher Parker and Alex Rathgeber have the grace to look a little awkward here). I thought this was overkill, for there are enough alternative characters in the show to satisfy anyone’s need for variety, like Fag Ash Lil the bearded lady, so wonderfully played by Sally-Anne Upton that I had to consult the program to determine whether she was a man or a woman.
The script is quite good, making full use of every Australian cliché, although surely a dictionary of Australian slang could have come up with something more original than phrases like “flat out like a lizard drinking” or “she’s off quicker than a bride’s nightie” – if the playwright wants, quite rightly, to give the text modern resonances, then he could have looked at something a little more recent than The Adventures of Barry McKenzie for inspiration, even if the show is set in the 1950s.
I really like the concept and, on the whole, the music, although I didn’t come out humming any of the songs, but in spite of the energetic physicality of the cast the show was a little lacking in pace – too many scene changes from short scene to short scene, too many characters wandering enigmatically around, and altogether a casual approach that sometimes lacked real passion.
Sometimes in theatre the parts can be greater than the whole, and although I can’t quite put my finger on the reason, this is one of those shows. On paper it gets everything right – plot, cast, music, set and script – but in performance there’s something missing. Maybe it’s a bit too long, maybe the love triangle is given too much focus, maybe the whole thing just needs to be snappier and tighter.
It’s a hard one to call, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and say that it just needs to settle in. The Brisbane season is the world premiere, and I’ll be interested to read the southern critics’ reaction when it goes on tour later this month.
Directed by Gary Young
Designer Richard Jeziorny
Playing until Sunday 18 February: matinees at 2pm on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; evening performances Tuesday at 6.30pm, Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm
Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, including interval