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Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook

Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook
Writer and Performer: Robyn Archer
Belvoir Theatre
October 18-29, 2023

When Robyn Archer walked onto the stage a palpable wave of warmth swept the room as she accepted her first round of applause. The audience comprised seemingly of the older generation – one senses they’re Boomer Australians who have journeyed with Robyn through life’s joys and pitfalls up to the present.

Archer is Australia’s theatrical icon par excellence. There is no other description for the many-hatted Ms Archer – writer, performer, political activist, historian, artistic director and more, with a career that began at the age of 12.

The stage presentation is cabaret-style and her very excellent musicians form an integral part of her performance. The trio comprises George Butrumlis, a piano accordion virtuoso, actor and multi-instrumentalist, Cameron Goodall on guitar and banjo, and on keyboard the deft, energetic Enio Pozzebon.

Archer, internationally renowned for her cabaret work, has created a compilation for An Australian Songbook with none of the usual suspects – instead it’s a mix of numbers from her early underground roots, songs from colonial times up to the present, and some excellent First Nations contributions.

In her slyly satirically first song, “I Am Not Nor Will I Ever Be”, she makes an assured statement of who she will never be – not Crocodile Dundee, Dr Germaine Greer, or Barry McKenzie-e-e. This is followed by a number of upbeat contemporary First Nations offerings – Goanna’s “Solid Rock” and Yothu Yindi’s “Macassan Crew”, a reminder that trepang fishermen visited Australia’s northern shores long before colonial times. “Jaara Nyilamum” is a song about birthing trees and their loss – sad, sonorous and haunting.

Next, Archer and the band segue to colonial ballads – “Plains of Emu” and “Song of the Standard Lamp” are reminders of the harshness of a convict’s life and the yearning for his loved ones while at the same time being intrigued by the animals and landscape of this strange country.

It’s the turn of the 20th century and the focus is on Sydney’s Kings Cross with “Palmer Street Blues” and “Chokers Lane”. That wild era is evoked by the kind of blues associated with the dark, dangerous alleys of ’30s noir movies, ably created by Pozzebon doing some boogie-woogie on the piano, together with Goodall on guitar.

The first half of the show ends with some of Archer’s quirky, personal compositions from the late ’60s and ’70s: “The Menstruation Blues”, followed by its sequel “The Menopause Blues” – personal subjects that probably raised eyebrows (and amusement) at the time.

The second half commences with a comment on the hazards of the social media era: “The Facebook Song”, written by Kate Miller-Heidke wherein a woman ponders the mental obtuseness of her ex, who has sent her a “friend request”. “Are you (expletive) kidding me?” she exclaims, affronted and mystified.

And onto that fertile territory for satire, Australian politics – the spotlight is turned on misogyny (Julia Gillard’s “Not Now Not Ever” speech), egotism and personal foibles – here Robert Menzies and Bob Hawke get the treatment. In a song from Keating! The Musical, “Good heavens, Mr Evans”, Pozzebon (as Gareth Evans) and Goodall (as Cheryl Kernot) deliver an hilarious duet, Goodall particularly impressive for his excellent falsetto.

As an encore, Archer takes her audience for a spin around Australia, singing snatches from about 30 songs that contain Australian place names, and finally, teasingly, mentioning Sydney, crooning “My city of Sydney …”

This is a superb show – one of the best in recent years! Hopefully a younger audience will be drawn in to see this magical performer, our National Living Treasure – I for one was still basking in the feel-good after-effects long after I left the theatre!

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