December 01, 1991

Funny Money

Filed under: Archive,Comedy


A Royal Commission into the Australian Economy

by John Clarke and Ross Stevenson

Space Cabaret

Susan Haynes/Allen and Unwin

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

John Clarke and Ross Stevenson conducted their first Royal Commission during the Melbourne Comedy Festival back in 1988 and it quickly became the hit show of the season. So when they set up a new inquisition- this time into the Australian Economy- it was certain to attract interest. All the same, it was a bold move for Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre to use it to open their card for 1991  and in so doing,  present a piece of theatre that actually looks out the window.

Despite the energy and invention of comedy in this country very little of it jumps the fence into theatre. With A Royal Commission a very fortunate miscegenation has taken place resulting in a production which has an originality that, like much of John Clarke’s work, is largely taken for granted. Erle Stanley Gardner had always understood the essentially dramatic nature of legal process but it took John Clarke and a lawyer like Ross Stevenson to see royal commissions not only as acts of public lamentation and oil wells for QCs but more fundamentally, as very perfect vehicles for sketch comedy. Think about it- you take an idiosyncratic commissioner free to say from the bench what he or she  likes and then you subpoena all the most distinguished public liars in the country and make them tell the truth for a change. It’s hard to imagine anything funnier, or more sublime.

Mind you, the Adelaide sittings of the Commission into the Economy taking place in the Space Cabaret are  hard pushed to compete with our very own investigation into the death of the State Bank Tooth Fairy, but they do bring a national perspective to the pitifully provincial.

The Judge, Dame Victoria Markets, aka Marg Downey, presides over the Commission in order to find out why, in the authors’ Ciceronian words, Australia has hit the wall somewhat in the financial department. In calling  for the swab and seeking  a ruling from the stewards, Malcolm Turnbull QC, in the guise of Craig Ashley, asks the sticky questions while Sir William Gunn, Alan Bond, Bill Kelty, R.J. Hawke and the Honorable Member for Blacktown, variously played by Sue Ingleton, Gerry Connolly and Magda Szubanski, reluctantly elaborate. An assortment of Treasury officials appear- Messrs Cardigan, Waistcoat and Trouser- as do a  currency trader from a major bank- James Ballieu, aged nine- and somebody called Pete Hungerford.

The format is in many ways an expansion of the Clarke-Dawe interviews – straight feed lines unrelentingly dissecting the prevarications of public figures. The circular logic of the wool subsidy, the failure of the Accord, the adventurism of the stock market –  I’m not a businessman your airship, says Alan Bond, I’m an entrepreneur- are all examined with chilling precision. What makes the show so strong is that the writers are unafraid to lay their  ground with straight information before they deliver a satiric haymaker.

The performers, a combination of those from the Sydney and Melbourne shows, pay various respect to the text. Ashley and Downey, and to a large extent, Sue Ingleton, splendidly keep the pace and shape of the cross-examination as does Tracey Harvey , priceless as the clerk of the court. At times, though,  Gerry Connolly and Magda Szubanski busk it too vigorously with the visual gags. It’s not that they’re out of place but the verbal finessing gets lost when Connolly blows  Kelty’s explanation of the Accord and Szubanski,  even with prompting, is unable to remember Nobby Clark’s five benefits of deregulation. I suppose, come to think of it, that’s been a problem for all of us. Certainly, both comedians bring plenty of dash to a show which can handle both egghead satire and burlesque.

In a year the impact of A Royal Commission into the Australian Economy has only increased. With very little suturing it remains a timely account – despite what might happen, or has happened, to Paul Keating or anyone else said to be in charge. In fact, performed in Adelaide, the show  has a simultaneity with Life Itself that leaves you feeling like you are laughing at your own funeral. Nobody is let off the hook despite the show’s splendidly conspiratorial conclusion. This is marvellously tough satire. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next thing Clarke and Stevenson suggest is  that we eat Irish babies.

A Royal Commission into the Australian Economy returns in January for an extended run -bite your lip and buy a ticket. Otherwise, read the book. Parental guidance recommended.

The Adelaide Review, No.95/6. December, 1991, p.38.

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