York Theatre, September 5


In other countries they’d be lobbing Molotov cocktails, flipping cars and looting shops. But in Australia a beloved comedian gate-crashed history and lowered the collective blood-pressure on the day when we entered unchartered constitutional waters. Even as deposed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was assuring us that nothing would save the Governor General, there was Norman Gunston mugging and trying to get one of his goofy interviews happening on the steps of Parliament House.

Although Bob Hawke sternly told Gary McDonald’s alter ego that the situation was too serious for Gunston-style zaniness, perhaps it was serendipitous. Certainly, the creators of The Dismissal – subtitled An Extremely Serious Musical Comedy – thought so, because they’ve used Gunston as their lynchpin in casting a satirical eye over events leading up Governor General John Kerr’s unilaterally replacing Whitlam with Malcolm Fraser on November 11, 1975.

Andrew Cutcliffe, Matthew Whittet and Justin Smith. Photos: David Hooley.

In fact, they could have used Gunston more, because Matthew Whittet’s impersonation is improbably accurate, from the grimacing smile to the worried eyes and frantic legs. Mainly used as a narrator, he’s consistently amusing – something achieved more often by the minor characters than the major ones throughout the show.

Peter Carroll’s Sir Garfield Barwick, Chief Justice of the High Court, is even funnier, mincing his Machiavellian way through the story in a wig and talons, and singing with impressive vigour. Then there’s Monique Salle in a hilarious cameo as Queen Elizabeth, doing a song-and dance number complete with scantily-clad corgis.

If such highlights more than justify the show’s existence, too much of the rest of it can feel as interminable as a history lesson on a sunny day, when you’d rather be riding your bike. At three hours, it’s certainly too long. Virtually no out-and-out comedy can sustain itself over that length, and so its successes come in waves of brilliance followed by troughs of second-rate undergraduate jokes and songs.

Octavia Barron-Martin and Peter Carroll. Photos: David Hooley.

Jay James-Moody conceived of it, directed it and co-wrote the book with Blake Erickson, while Laura Murphy crafted the music and lyrics, some of which are exceptional. Collectively they poke fun at all involved, while also trying to land the odd ideological punch. Their problem is that their three key characters, Whitlam (Justin Smith), Fraser (Andrew Cutcliffe) and John Kerr (Octavia Barron-Martin) are simply not as entertaining as Gunston, Barwick and the Queen – and to that list you can add others, including Joe Kosky’s libido-charged Jim Cairns.

Occasionally the creators shoot for a more poignant moment, as when Margaret Whitlam (Brittanie Shipway) tells an anecdote from her competitive swimming days to make Gough get back on his political bike. The most successful of these sequences comes at the end, when the ghosts of Gough and Malcolm pass judgement on the show and look back on the events. The writers could have left it there, because the finale – a reprise of a song from the Act One – is as overwrought as it is extraneous. Imagine being brave enough to leave a musical without a big finale? They should have bitten that bullet.

Amy Campbell makes most of the choreography a boon to the comedic intent, although she’s forgivably flummoxed by some songs that don’t work, including Maintain Your Rage. Mark Chamberlain leads a slick band featuring major-league drummer Warren Trout, with Murphy’s material ranging relatively seamlessly from rock to Vaudeville. While the show is definitely worth seeing, the recommendation would be stronger were 30 minutes of weaker material expunged.

Until October 21.