April 01, 1996

Two Persons Singular

Filed under: Archive,Comedy

The Corridor of Uncertainty

Flacco and Sandman
Arts Theatre
10 March

In the profusion of performed comedy in Australia there are few acts as exquisitely theatrical as Paul Livingston’s Flacco. For about ten years this fragile eggshell mind has amazed both himself and his audience with his metaphysical delvings and his literary peregrinations. As he says himself, he wants to be put out of his mystery. But it is Flacco’s lot to become curiouser and curiouser- and weirder and weirder. He has moved from club to stage to screen. He has jumped channels. He has worked with the Doug Anthony Allstars and Andrew Denton, he has pondered aloud with Bruce Petty. And now he is in the corridor of uncertainty alongside one of nature’s truer paranoids, the quivering voice of unreason, Stephen Abbott’s altered ego, Sandman.

Listeners to Triple J know that it must follow, as the night the day, that in their regular morning spots Flacco and Sandman will observe, pronounce, confess and generally editorialise about matters large and infinitesimal. The station’s enormous growth in popularity has now brought these comparatively esoteric persons to a wide, and younger, audience.

After reading his news-from-Adelaide letter from behind the ancient red curtain of the Arts Theatre, Sandman comes blinking into the light. Formerly of Newcastle’s famed Castanet Club, Stephen Abbott has, with Sandman, perfected the lugubrious delivery. His slow moving pontifications suggest a young Sandy Stone but the focus of the neurosis is the narrow nineties. I choose to start the show now, he announces, and his nerdy signature sets the crowd off. I have a fear of failure, rejection and success, he confides, so whatever you say I won’t be happy. Standing motionless at the microphone he reels off his enervated philosophy. I don’t like puppies he whimpers, I don’t like anything with a future. My favourite thing is seeing people miss out on something they really want.

Abbott playfully mocks his own stagecraft. He hilariously demonstrates how to make a move from the microphone to the music stand seem interesting. He makes pteradactyl noises to break the monotony and suggests they would be helpful in job interviews. He reads ponderous wisdom from the music stand while the theme from Twin Peaks wells up like a smoke machine. He plays his guitar and sings songs with uncertain metre. And for his finale he is joined by Flacco, who in addition to his usual bizarre costume is wearing a metallic apron which he plays with drum brushes. The comic effect is nicely held -each performer intent on maintaining poise. But as we hope, Abbott is corpsed by Livingston’s relentless deadpan. Vladimir gives in again to Estragon, Ollie loses out to Stan – in order for both to win.

For his set in the second half, Flacco appears in a broad hat and heavy fur coat, the lonely saxophone accompaniment parodies even the parodies of film noir. But as ever Livingston’s detail and timing give freshness to the character in his many guises. Flacco is no longer introduced as a pale pate inching uncertainly through the top of a trench coat- but all these associations of his alien gentleness abide nonetheless. Flacco,in later career, is more flamboyant, more raucous even. He can make quite a noise when he thinks about how much he likes meat. This flyspeck on the piecrust of humanity is not beyond the ribald either. My body is celibate, he observes, but my mind is completely fucked.

Dressed in trademark black tights with various pelts and paraphenalia hanging from his belt Flacco is also vaguely Elizabethan in his flounced shirt with collar brooch. His hair is sprouting like turrets, or antennae, and a long strand coils like a question mark on his expansive forehead. Flacco is an extraordinary being and it is Livingston’s gift that he can inhabit the gothic, the fin de siecle and the danceclub with equal aplomb. The comedy is superbly visual- eyeball gymnastics, an entire repertoire of lip pursings. It is also wonderfully verbal- suggestive of Joyce and Beckett but on closer inspection eluding scrutiny altogether.

A packed house of mainly young fans is spellbound by the minimal staging and the focused performances, the prosc arch jokes, the curtain gags. It is a reminder, if we needed one, that our theatre at present is being hugely invigorated by cabaret and comedy. Like Lano and Woodley, Flacco and Sandman are finding a wide and appreciative audience who not only recognise the precision and intelligence of their theatrical comedy, they are delighting in it.

The Australian, April 15, 1996.

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