Seems it’s the week to end all weeks for high-camp comedy in Sydney. The night before last, New Theatre’s The Venetian Twins. And last night, Tamarama Rock Surfers/Little Ones’ Psycho Beach Party, written by Charles Busch and directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, with a stunningly efficacious and evenly-matched cast, amusing choreography by Kurt Phelan and suitably trashy costumes by Eugyeene Teh and Tessa Pitt. The play is known as a camp classic (in the vein of, say, Hairspray) and all on-board have milked that reputation for all its worth.
It’s Malibu, ’62. Vintage Malibu. And the surf’s up. Ash Flanders is Florence “Chicklet” Forrest who, we learn, quite apart from being a boy playing a girl, suffers from multiple personality disorder (as does 18% of the American populace, if Busch is to be believed, which I sincerely and conscientiously doubt). Thus, we also inevitably become acquainted with the archetypally evil Ann Bowman; a manifestation of Chicklet’s mother when young and entertaining sailors, as you do. There’s also a Dr Frasier Crane agony aunt DJ in there somewhere. A black checkout chick. A male model. And the accounting firm of Edelman & Edelman. It’s Jekyll & Hyde, multiplied.
If you get a kick out of The United States of Tara, PBP should serve as an uproarious parody. The dissonance between Chicklet and her key alter ego couldn’t be starker: Chicklet just wants to be one of the surfer boys, while Bowman seeks world domination.
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The buzz on the beach is that some madman, or madwoman, has been creeping ’round, shaving the heads, pussies, et al, of unsuspecting victims, then murdering them (‘though not necessarily in that order). Mere coincidence?
The bare-midriffed Flanders is, if not divinely, comically inspired casting. The effeminate hilarity he provides is matched, though, by Genevieve Guiffre’s Berdine; Chicklet’s best friend and a “bulldyke” with a yearning for something more hands-on in the way of a relationship. Her cleft palate, or whatever faux affliction it is, precisely, makes for a wonderful metaphor for her outcast, ugly duckling status. There’s one, after all, in every Gidget-slasher-comedy-drama. And her acute intellectual pretensions (she’s often referencing Sartre and Nietzsche) are a cheeky counterpoint to, say, go-get girl Marvel Ann’s inanity.
Kevin Kiernan Molloy’s Starcat channels all those Annette Funicello movies of yore, with his psychotically upbeat personality. Paul Blenheim’s Provoloney is also every bit as deliciously cheesy as you might dread; he’s the runt of the litter and bursting with latency, which he’s finally able to express with Yoyo (Tom Dent). To see the two of them feign macho while gay love simmers between them is especially funny, but also oddly touching for those of us who’ve had close friends struggle with coming out, only to eventually burst forth from the closet.
Amanda McGregor is rightfully excessive as the scarily intense Mrs Forrest, Chicklet’s cruel mother. Caitlin Adams did more than reprise Marilyn, as Bettina Barnes, a voluptuous, self-obsessed actor; she almost was Marilyn. Peter Paltos is The Great Kanaka, surf god, not quite as comfortable in his own skin as his studiously cultivated, chilled-out disposition would indicate. Before hip-hop, there was hip and hep and Kanaka’s blast-from-the-past cool catchcries are a captivating anthropological dig. And, last but by no means least, Zoe Boesen, is Marvel Ann, the ‘legally range’ popular girl; popular for all the wrong reasons. To a man and woman, the cast is an absolute blast, with no small thanks due to Nicolazzo.
Songs featured (like the quirky, surreal and iconic Rock Lobster) help build the psycho beach party atmosphere but, aside from the cast, it’s Busch’s script that does most of the heavy lifting. It’s fun, teetering on downright silly at times, but with enough perversity, subversity, colour and character to save its own skin when the ice, or comedy, is looking a little thin, or repetitive. Schlock beach blanket movies take on a whole new lease of life thanks to Busch’s poison pen and, I s’pose you’d expect no less, or more, from the man who brought us Vampire Lesbians Of Sodom which, on face value, sounds like another absolute must-see.
Nicolazzo takes things a step further, with in-the-know jokes of his own: while Busch’s original (not totally, he borrows from at least one Hitchcock classic) production had Provoloney, for example, as prime beef, Blenheim’s tiny frame makes for tasty irony. For my money, though, Busch’s script frays and drags at times and not even the energy and brilliance of this cast and crew, try as they might and obviously have, can elevate it to truly admirable, clever comedy status. And a really off-putting aspect of opening night was the sycophantic audience, who laughed, clapped and whistled a little too loud.
PBP is an in-the-moment hoot, but a little like the proverbial Chinese meal.
The details: Psycho Beach Party plays the Bondi Pavilion Theatre until December 15. Tickets on the company website.