Writers: Jay James-Moody, Blake Ericksen
Director: Jay James Moody
September 5 – October 21, 2023
The Dismissal: An Extremely Serious Musical Comedy received a well-deserved standing ovation on opening night. As well as explaining the details of a major constitutional crisis with clarity, The Dismissal is also a stylish musical satirising Australian politics and politicians, semi-narrated by Norman Gunston, a TV comic present on the steps of Parliament when Whitlam spoke the famous words “Well may we say God save the Queen as nothing will save the Governor-General”.
As the main players were white males the production short circuits the inevitable protests, not only by ungendered and inclusive casting, but also by presenting the women involved – wives and lovers – as having a strong influence on their men’s actions. Brittanie Shipway gives an authenticity to Margaret Whitlam as a steadfast wife, who nevertheless is no cypher, declaring – believably – she would have torn up Kerr’s note of dismissal as no one else had seen it. Lady Kerr (Stacey Thomsett), of “private school girl” lineage, also supports her husband, but as Thomsett conveys, swanning it in a “royal” gown, more out of self-interest. Shannen Alyce Quan as Junie Morosi, whose relationship with the Treasurer dominated press interest rather than the inroads made upon white male privilege by her appointment as his Principal Private Secretary, impressed the audience with her rendition of “Headline”.
The villains of the plot are deliciously horrible. In her number, “I’m not listening”, Monique Sallé as the Queen throwing off her pink outfit to become a punk rock dominatrix complete with ensemble of pussy cats, entertainingly makes her position on the colonial political impasse clear but unclear. By contrast, the major villain, Sir Garfield Barwick, whose comically evil intent is signalled by puffs of smoke and lightning flashes, is thrillingly performed by a sinister Peter Carroll complete with skeletal hands as he compellingly sings “Say yes” to a nervous Kerr (Octavia Barron Martin). While Kerr could be thought of as a villain, Martin’s portrayal of Kerr’s uncertainty of his social place – “the son of boilermaker” – and the pressure of Barwick (a high court judge who seemed not to know about the separation of powers) as well as his new wife is well-invoked. Unintentionally, perhaps, Martin’s small hands and feet contribute to the sense that Kerr is perpetually off-balance in his role as Governor-General.
Other characters complicate this complex situation: pugnacious Rex Connor, Minerals and Energy Minister (Georgia Bolton) and on-the-make Pakistani banker, Tirath Khemlani (also Sallé) whose petrodollar shenanigans seem dimly understood by Joe Kosky’s intellectual, lovelorn and ineffectual Dr Jim Cairns. When their secret loan arrangement is leaked to the press, “it is time” for Malcom Fraser (Andrew Cutcliffe), scion of the pastoral aristocracy, blue-suited and quick-witted, to restore Australia to those born to rule, “private school boys” wearing the right shoes. A beautifully arrogant, Cutcliffe outwits “little” Billy Sneddon (again Sallé) for party leadership showing the same mettle that will bring the complex but naïve Gough (Justin Smith) undone.
Smith is brilliant as Whitlam. Somehow the voice is reproduced, rounded and resonant. By perfectly adopting the Gough posture – head up and looking slightly ahead as if seeing a vision of a better, more generous world – Smith creates the nobility of face and manner that characterised Whitlam. The lively song “Rain down Under” sung by the whole company conveys the hope that the Whitlam’s government brought to “the big dry” – 23 years of Liberal party rule – and an overhead screen rapidly supplies the raft of changes initiated by his government. Wisely, his weaknesses are not overlooked. He is conceited – that hair – he behaves insensitively to Kerr, he is unbelievably foolish in his treatment of a newspaper baron and, in the end, his lofty view makes him less politically astute.
And then there is Matthew Whittet as a look-alike Gunston. He is very entertaining as he introduces the play, weaves in and out of the action with comical ungracefulness, fills in with patter and makes a useful comment in his song “Why would you get into politics?” Is the “little bleeder” Gunston, clever songs and snappy dance routines and “making light of it all”, the best means of questioning our present political crisis? See The Dismissal and know a cautionary tale when you see one.