What was Tony Abbott?
Ruthless conservative? “Brawling politician of great skill”, as David Marr said in his farewell piece in the Guardian? Or was he just a blunderer, a complete failure of a Prime Minister, soon to be as memorable as a bad hangover?
Since his ousting and Turnbull’s takeover, top ten lists of “Cringeworthy Tony Abbott Moments” and videos of his catastrophic off-hand comments (that sneaky boom mic…), have resulted in a nationwide mocking festival of the 28th Prime Minister of Australia. This has become the public’s perception of Tony Abbott.
The latest production in this vein is the potential Fringe-favourite Abbott! The Musical, a Horatian satire presented by George Glass and showing at the Tuxedo Cat. The musical was written (and furiously re-written post-lib spill) by Daniel Murnane and Nicolas Conway. It’s a high-energy performance that pulls no punches in its tour through some of Abbott’s worst (or best, from a comic’s perspective) public appearances, a few looks behind the scenes at the Cabinet, and some scathing rock songs.
As the overhead lights dim, the Julie Bishop character (wearing an eerily accurate wig) comes out to introduce the piece. Decorating the stage is a soap box stage right, black table and chairs at the back, while the four-piece band sits half obscured by the curtain. Above Bishop’s head is the Quote Box which, she tells us, will light up when “what you’re hearing is an actual quote” from the Prime Minister or members of his cabinet.
Soon the play’s protagonist (and the nation’s antagonist) enters, a glorious caricature played by Conway. Hair slicked painfully close to his head, complexion pallid and nose made up like a Papier Mache mistake, Conway embodies every snide remark made about Abbott’s unappealing look. Conway implements all the little Abbottisms too, from his lengthy “umms” and “ahhs”, his pauses and jerky hand movements evoking an amateur ventriloquist failing to make his puppet act natural.
Other unflattering portrayals of the cabinet include a callous Joe Hockey whose crowd-winning performance by Alister McMichael and budget-inspired song “Fuck ‘em” was a real show highlight.
There’s also Peter Dutton, Julie Bishop and George, Abbott’s exasperated PR man. Turnbull appears mid-way to share a romantic dinner with Bishop as they plot the spill. This must have been one of the re-writes later inserted into the show, but it’s no rushed job. An innuendo-laden conversation produces such gems as, “We’re getting just desserts, and then the party’s over,” before leading into a romantic number, “Won’t you spill with me?” While all the performers did their jobs well, it was really the Abbott and Hockey characters who were heavily satirising their Liberal counterparts. Others seemed to depend on the public’s recognition of their names, rather than individualising the performances.
Abbott and co stumble through a wedding, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the infamous budget, and a disastrous university speech. Some of the scene transitions were a little awkward, with so few props to indicate the setting. The production suffered from its lack of an outside director, who could have adjusted a few of these scenes. To arrive at the wedding, Abbott and George simply walked in a U-turn formation before Abbott announced their arrival. Jarring moments like these could have been softened if the band adopted different styles to supply some ambiance, but they stuck to their rock numbers, ringing a twangy guitar tone throughout. No music during the wedding scene left a gap in the play that could easily have been filled.
One of the things that made Abbott such an unpopular leader was that he seemed impervious to change. Plenty of jokes have been bandied around about Abbott being stuck in the 50s—or any other decade where white, male conservativism went unquestioned—but he never got the message. The barrage of insults on social media about his governing style were deflected by his smarmy, pseudo-genuine smile. Still, he continued to believe he was saving Australia, whether it was “defending” us from the boats, or appointing himself the minister for women. Abbott: The Musical acutely satirised this when he gives a speech on International Women’s Day, highlighting his ignorance to his own intrusion when he says: “Like women from the 70s, I too have progressed.” This was followed by his rebuttal against claims of misogyny in the form of the song, “Misogyny, me? It couldn’t be.”
On these issues, Conway and Murnane’s cynical humour was spot on and articulated all our frustrated thoughts about the Liberal party’s leadership. Still, like Abbott’s conservativism, this humour fell apart in the wrong context. A trip to Manus Island Detention centre was met with frosty silence from the audience. Quips about the condition of asylum seekers who couldn’t say anything in response “with their mouths sown shut” came across as insensitive and unnecessary.
The intent clearly wasn’t to be insensitive. This is an ironic musical. What happened during the Manus Island scene simply revealed that its creators needed to be more careful about their choice of subjects. Detention centres house real people in difficult conditions, and Abbott’s approach to the issue wasn’t just cringe-inducing, it was horrific. It’s not an easy subject to find the humour in—if there even is any—but perhaps Conway and co. should have cut this scene and stuck to harmless mockery.
While Abbott: The Musical might not bring us any closer to answering the question of just exactly what the hell was going on with our ex-PM, the energetic performances, fun songs and fresh sense of humour make this a must-see at Fringe. This team of performers have created a show that acutely satirises most of Tony’s blunders, while reminding us we’ll probably never have such an entertaining national leader again. But who knows? At next year’s Fringe we could be seeing a production of “Turnbull! The Musical”. If that has to happen, I hope these guys have something to do with it.