North of the Border

Visy Theatre (Brisbane Music Festival)


By Gerry Connolly and Robert Davidson

Professional production

Remember how comedian Gerry Connolly had Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen down pat to the last nuance? How his astute eye captured the very garbled action and his convoluted verbiage was more Joh than Joh? The audience which booked out North of the Border largely comprised those of us of a certain vintage who lustily sang 60’s Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, marched for the right to march and railed against Vietnam conscription and the police state inflicted on Queensland. Thus the satire in North of the Border required background knowledge, and younger generations might have missed of the point.

Connolly as front man directed a mix of music, visuals via power point slides, and words which range from poetry to comedy. Composer Robert Davidson has for some years fused words and music, capturing the tones and rhythms of the spoken word in effective interpretations of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal speech. He extended this concept by meshing tape recordings of Queensland poets Judith Wright and David Malouf reading their poems with the quintet Topology’s interpretation. While the timbre of Wright’s voice is not particularly mellifluous in scratchy old tapes, overall the nuances are effective and extend the theme of revealing Queensland’s cultural and historic diversity, and I especially enjoyed the string harmonic timbres depicting Malouf’s Stars. Davidson’s composition features driving minimalist rhythms, pulsing energy and solid tone as in his “Landscape” which paints evocative textures of the Glasshouse Mountain regions. At times there’s a Klezmer gypsy flair from Topology’s quintet, typically tightly performed, of Robert Davidson on bass, Kylie Davidson on piano, saxophonist John Babbage, Christa Powell on violin and – on this occasion – Michael Paterson filling in as violist. They resuscitated from Queensland’s early music archives hilariously cringe-worthy songs which they performed with relish and audience sing-along. The 1920’s Billy Malone songs revel in aboriginal place names such as In-doo-roo-pilly and Coolangatta.

It was an uneasy opening, during which Connolly rather laboured his explanation of Davidson’s modus operandi of translating speech rhythms and pitches into music. He baffled rather than clarified in his rather condescending explanation of musical tonality but this gave him an opportunity to whip off the opening phrase of Greig’s Piano Concerto. It’s reasonably flashy but Connolly made no bones in the festival program notes that “Gerry is – or rather was -¬ a gifted pianist” but “did not make the effort!” His singing voice is pleasant but not always reliable, with some unfortunate misjudged attempts at notes outside his range. And the rap with violist Michael Paterson pounding percussion out of the microphone would have been more successful if Connolly had memorised the lines.

There were dollops of cringe with a slide show of Queensland icons – the Big Pineapple, Peanut, Strawberry, Pumpkin, Mango et al, and the over-sized road-side animals (cow, bull, pelican, cane toad etc) – all rather folksy and good for a giggle. There was real belly laughing in Connolly’s performance on “Rum-a-phone,” a traymobile of pitched Bundaberg rum bottles, which he played with two spoons. “Oh, one is out of tune: just a minute while I fix that”, he muttered as he took a swig.

Where Davidson’s fascination with speeches and politicians derives from social conscience, Connolly plunders them for their comedy value, and it’s here that he’s in his element. (“Canberra, capital of the ACTU.”) He has updated his material with a take on Kevin Rudd; John and Johnette Howard rate a mention; and he updates us with Paul Keating’s latest spray: “If you don’t come from Sydney, you’re camping out… Melbourne’s the poor man’s Sydney – even the Myer Music Bowl is the Sidney Myer Bowl.” There were many hilarious moments and one-liners but also times when the pace lagged. However, Connolly’s experience as a comedian came through in his audience interaction, rubbishing latecomers and playing to the home-crowd with his local-boy-returns line.

It was a lively and fun performance overall, but with technological glitches. Whereas Topology are a respected, experienced and tightly fused ensemble who perform innovative repertoire, in this production it seemed that too much hung on Connolly who, when I saw it on the second night, fumbled far too often. There were revealing slips of insecurity, even of identity crisis as reflected in his last line: “If you liked me, I’m Gerry Connolly; if you didn’t, I’m Billy Connolly.”

This lack of identity was reminiscent of Peter Sellers, who could play anyone except himself. There’s a sense that with the passing of Joh and the fading of Queen Elizabeth to the republican movement, so too Connolly’s star has waned. He’s a great talent in need of a revamp.

Directed by Robert Davidson, one gathers. With no program, it wasn’t clear.

Played Friday 13 and Saturday 14 July 2007 at 7.00pm

Duration: 90 minutes, no interval

— Ruth Bonetti
(Performance seen: Fri 13th July 2007)