Accomplished observations make for uncomfortable viewing in this Punch and Judy show
Star rating: ****
Venue: Gilded Balloon at the Counting House (Venue 170)
The story of Mr Punch has become so ingrained in children’s entertainment that it’s easy to forget what a nasty piece of work the character really is, what with all the beatings and murders and all.
There’s no missing it in this very grown-up live-action production, which made its Fringe debut last year, written by and starring Sydney-based queer performer Brent Thorpe and directed by Rowan Greaves.
The basic tale is familiar: Punch lobs his baby out of the window, clobbers his wife Judy, makes short work of some other unfortunates (including representatives of law and order and the spiritual plane) and ultimately gets away with everything. Here, though, his actions are presented as the handiwork of an archetypal Australian embodiment of toxic masculinity. Plastered in mask-like clown make-up and aptly wearing a wifebeater vest, Thorpe’s Punch is deeply unnerving, at once chirpy and monstrous, his larky, down-to-earth charms and demotic eloquence barely papering over obnoxious entitlement and deep-seated insecurity. In between dropping poetically filthy Aussie slang, he asserts that Judy and the baby are “my wife and child to do with as I please – that’s my God-given right as a white male,” while he tells a gay character “you’re threatening my masculinity by emphasising the penetrability of men”.
Les Asmussen, Christine Firkin and Jimmi Mercieca are only slightly less grotesque in a range of supporting roles, from snooty schoolgirl to pervy cabaret singer, police officer to baby’s ghost. All are either outrageously abused or outrageously abusive and the whole thing makes for supremely queasy but powerfully perceptive viewing. Vital observations around gender, class, sexuality and the disorders each generation passes to the next lurk beneath the colourful depravity of saucy songs, scatalogical props, cartoon sound effects and knowing winks to the audience. That’s the way to do it.
Until 29 August. Today 9:45pm.