THE DISMISSAL - an Extremely Serious Musical Comedy, Squabbalogic at the Seymour Centre, York Theatre, 6 September-21 October 2023. Photography by David Hooley
The opening night audience at the much-anticipated musical Dismissal was as anachronistic as the show itself. In a crowd of ultra-excited 30-somethings, for whom the story is as ancient as Camelot, was a substantial sprinkling of equally keen yet actually remembering – so more subdued because, you know, history – and therefore for whom it was a searing, shocking experience. Like the American coup against Allende in Chile, but without bombs and bloodshed.
Thats the thing about Australia - where fun is made of any sacred cow - Dingo the (ahem) Rock Musical anyone? We are really good at laughing at the serious side of life and thus ignoring what it really means. Unfortunately, it’s probably why we have yet to declare a republic and why there is such a thing as a “No” vote.
Nevertheless, The Dismissal, intentionally or not, shines an unsparing spotlight on the hubris and heroism of that fabled time in the early 1970s. Then it seemed, for a brief shining moment, that Australia could finally amount to something amazing that wasn’t woolly or sporty.
Jay James-Moody who dreamed it up, directed and co-wrote it with Blake Erickson, has made a semi-narrator role out of the genius comic character of the day, Norman Gunston. As inhabited by Matthew Whittet, Gunston is febrile, faux bonkers and breathtakingly intelligent. He observes, takes part and also engages the audience at irregular intervals and cannot help but be a scene-stealer.
The same can be said for Peter Carroll as the born-to-rule ex-Attorney General-under-Menzies Sir Garfield Barwick. Narrowly staving off apoplexy as Labor under Whitlam usurps his rightful place in the political sun, he creeps and roars, schemes and bullies and is altogether delightfully awful. Talk about “hiss the villain!”
Assuming you know the story – several centuries of stifling Menzies rule finally up-ended by Labor under charismatic visionary Gough Whitlam, only to out-run its ability to actually govern the day-to-day and get tripped up by prideful ambition and some truly inadequate cabinet ministers – The Dismissal runs the story back and forth with the aid of an airport-style sign above an otherwise empty, tiered stage. And it really helps to keep an eye on it.
Music and lyrics by Laura Murphy meld seamlessly with the book and these elements range from dazzlingly clever to a bit juvenile with a band sharply led by musical director Mark Chamberlain. Choreography by Amy Campbell is an amalgam of 70s tropes and stage musical pizazz and is well served by the energetic company.
As Gough, Justin Smith looks and sounds the part: the sonorous delivery and thousand yard stare into the future are uncannily accurate. Except when he opens his mouth to sing when he – and the rest of the cast – revert to Broadway American and it’s downright weird.
Another weird choice is to dress the Queen (Monique Sallé) in a pink pillbox hat and A-line suit that shrieks Jackie Kennedy on Assassination Day, rather than Her Maj. Nevertheless, the hardworking Sallé – she also takes on hapless Billy Snedden and creepy moneyman Khemlani – is splendid, and she also has semi-erotic corgis to deal with.
The most unexpected figure in the saga is Octavia Barron Martin’s G-G, Sir John Kerr. State secrets being what they are we’ll probably never know exactly what went down, but the man Whitlam exhorted Australians to hate never recovered from the bonfire of vanities he lit under himself. In top hat and medals Barron Martin is part pathos, part pomposity and, in the end, all sadness.
Other players in the drama are fine, although Andrew Cutcliffe’s Malcolm Fraser is way too sexy, which is not his fault. And as the never-bearded Dr Jim Cairns, Joe Kosky really should get rid of the face fuzz if he is to convince. As for Margaret Whitlam (Brittanie Shipway) and Juni Morosi (Shannen Alyce Quan), both come up hard against the hyper-realist characterisations of Whitlam and Gunston and although both sing gloriously, they can’t overcome that visual obstacle.
In the end, at three hours and with that many endings, The Dismissal is still too long and is in need of firmly-wielded scissors. Someone needs to say “kill your darlings” and get on with it, then this bold, brash, satirical, often-brilliant show could take off. Meanwhile, it’s ambitious to the nth degree and that can only be good.