Three at the Powerhouse

(Powerhouse Theatre)


Fans of the Brisbane Powerhouse will be glad to see that the recently-completed $3.5 million re-vamp hasn’t changed the atmosphere or even the look of Brisbane’s favourite live performance site, but has made it more efficient (the new theatre seats are especially welcome) and offers even more places to eat.

The two-month re-opening celebrations have included events as disparate as the Queensland Music Festival and the Queer Film Festival; a Powerkiz festival for children and an exhibition of international press photographs; and, of course, a number of short comedy performances.

I saw three of the latter recently – the host of the Nova 1069 Breakfast Show Meschel Laurie in her stand-up piece Shadow of my Former Self, London-based American comic Amy Lame with her illustrated family memoir called Mama Cass Family Singers, and Brisbane’s own Brides of Frank in a five-hander, ’Til Death Do Us Part.

All three, as so often happens with hour-long shows, had very short seasons, so this review is more of a reminder of what you’ve missed (or, in one case at least, were lucky to miss) than a recommendation of what you should see.

Like the curate’s egg, comedy shows can be a risky business, even if they’re not quite as risky as stand-up comedy in a pub. The patrons have come because (a) they know or have heard of the artists and/or (b) they trust the producers/venue to put on only decent shows. They’ve paid real money, too, so they’re more inclined to be quiet so that they can get their money’s worth, therefore hecklers are not encouraged, and audiences tend to be really polite.

With Meschel Laurie it was love at first sight or, for most of the audience, long-term love fulfilled. Her show was ostensibly about coming to terms with her body shape – and no, not even at her worst did she ever fill those size-50 yellow pants that were the advertising gimmick – and, because she had finally realised that she’s never wake up thin, the only alternative was to get bigger parts. Very much a message for the unloved overweight, and in her uniquely eccentric way she achieved more than any po-faced pop-psychologist for, from the look and reaction of the audience, some of whom were still showing last year’s muffin-tops, she was hitting the right note. Everyone, whether fat or thinnish, loved her, and with her usual hard-hitting verbal style enhanced by the freedom allowed by a live audience, Laurie produced a gutsy, hard-hitting, sometimes down-and-dirty and foul-mouthed monologue, which was very funny at the same time. Some unintended and unnoticed irony in the script sometimes, though, like the segment that mocked names that unfeeling parents gave their children. This coming from someone called Meschel? But nobody else seemed to get it – certainly Laurie herself didn’t.

I quite enjoyed this show, although it was right out of my age and comfort zone, but it’s good to see a stand-up who recognises a familiar audience and knows how to work them.

The very next night I saw the American comic Amy Lame (who should have an e-acute as the last letter of her name, but I’m not technically proficient enough to be able to command my PC to perform this complex feat). But even as it stands it sums up her act, because it was a very lame little show, even though the concept was cute and clever. The scenario is that Amy (another fat girl from a family of fatties) and her three siblings were kidnapped by Mama Cass (the real person from The Mamas and the Papas who did not die from choking on a ham sandwich) and forced to form a group called the Mama Cass Family Singers, and that for two years they toured the States attracting audiences until one day Mama Cass dumped them in a shopping centre car park and left them to their fates.

This comi-tragic fictional tale was told partly by Lame herself, directly to or with her back towards to the audience, but mostly through filmed interviews with her siblings, parents and the family dog, who apparently were in on the joke, such as it was. For those in the audience who thought it was a true story (stranger things have happened in America, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate), there was a Q&A session with the performer afterwards, where the idea behind the gig was explained. This may have enlightened us, but it didn’t make the show any funnier or more interesting and I, and many of the audience members I spoke to afterwards, wondered what the point was, and whether it had really been a smash hit at the Edinburgh Fringe festival (Scots may be a dour lot, but they’re not stupid), and decided that we’d just wasted an hour of our precious time. But we were all polite and clapped in the appropriate places, although nobody laughed very much, so I assume that, unlike her audience, Ms Lame went away satisfied.

The best of the three shows, in my book at least, was the totally surreal production from local heroes (in less PC times I would have said heroines), The Brides of Frank, whom I loved to bits even though I didn’t have a clue what they were on about. The first thing I had to do was cast off my old-fashioned “What’s it all about?” mentality and morph into the world of the American poet Archibald MacLeish, who once famously said, to the relief of English literature students everywhere, that “a poem should not mean, but be”. Once I’d achieved that state of mind I was ready to sit back and let it wash all over me, glorying in the outrageous fantasies of the five brides in white going to their collective doom; wondering at the costumes of the four fairy floss fairies dashing around the stage dishing out toffees; reliving, through my mother’s eyes, the days of the ’50s housewives in check house frocks and frilly aprons; laughing myself silly at the antics of the lampshades, table and suitcases when the owner was out; and absolutely loving the Squalid Gold glittering ladies from the Spandau Ballet. How tacky life is when seen in retrospect, especially though the eyes of people who were never there. Cringe material for the middle-aged, but pure bliss for the open-minded.

So just because the Brisbane Powerhouse has been off the radar screen for the past few months, remember that it’s now back, and the latest acts are bigger, bolder and brasher than ever. And even though you may not find the idea of a fat naked lady reclining on a bed of daisies attractive, as Amy Lame’s publicity suggested, at least we were spared that in her show, and there are plenty of other things to look forward to. Check out the offerings for the next few months at

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Sun 10th June 2007)