REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★

In 1975, Reg Livermore’s one-man cabaret Betty Blokk-Buster Follies premiered at the Bijou Theatre in Balmain, introducing audiences to a cheeky (in more ways than one) German maid and a cast of equally colourful characters. It came a year after Livermore first appeared as Dr Frank N. Furter in the Australian premiere of The Rocky Horror Show and, like Richard O’Brien’s international stage hit, it represented an historic moment for local theatre and made Livermore a star. It was a piece of theatre that shocked and was confronting, owing to the fact that things were said by his characters on subjects generally not discussed.  And despite being shunned by the Sydney media, it sold out performances for eight months at the Bijou, before touring Australia.

As part of Sydney Festival 2020, Red Line Productions (which, today, facilitates some of the city’s best independent theatre at the Old Fitz) is staging Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined, paying homage to Livermore’s ground-breaking cabaret. Directed by Craig Ilott (whose recent credits include Velvet and Smoke & Mirrors), it’s a production in which Josh Quong Tart steps into Livermore’s sizeable shoes and that has reimagined the 1975 smash hit with the Australian theatre legend’s imprimatur. The show is now playing at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent in Hyde Park until 26 January.

Just as Livermore did 45 years ago, Quong Tart arrives on stage as the title character, who demands applause, bares her bottom, and makes rather unorthodox audience participation requests. The set, designed by Brian Thomson, shows deference to the 1975 production design, with its proscenium arch covered in coloured lights.

When Betty disappears, the audience is introduced to a variety of characters, including Jane, a woman whose favourite pastimes include reporting her neighbour’s parking violations to council; a particularly unwoke manager in a workplace; Beryl, a wearied housewife with seven kids and a husband; and a nursing home resident whose gay son has recently married. Quong Tart’s character acting skills and comedic timing are excellent, and he proves his versatility as he moves from one guise to the next.

Between characters, Quong Tart (well supported by Kaylah Attard, Melissa Pringle and Elanoa Rokobaro) performs an eclectic range of songs, including Macy Gray’s ‘Sexual revolution’, Billy Joel’s ‘Captain Jack’ (which also appeared on Livermore’s setlist), Tones and I’s ‘Johnny run away’, Randy Newman’s ‘God’s song (That’s why I love mankind)’, and Jamie Cullum’s ‘The Age of Anxiety’. Quong Tart foregrounds the themes of these songs as if they were narratives and are an effective way to propel the piece forward. Music is played live by a stellar four-piece band (Musical Director Andrew Worboys, Andy Davies, Tina Harris and Glenn Morehouse) and sounds terrific in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, thanks to Anthony Lorenz’s sound design.

We may have brought a lot of once-taboo topics out into the open since the 1970s, but this reimagined Betty Blokk-Buster event, like the original, successfully satirises contemporary Australian society and highlights an uncomfortable reality – that we may not have progressed as significantly over the decades as we like to imagine. The 70-minute production provokes thought about drug use, religion, sexuality, our treatment and judgement of ‘the other’, and the universal need to be loved. These are hardly passé.

Primarily, though, Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined is about entertainment, and it’s highly successful on that front, too. For adults of just about any age, this offers a good night out, even for the previously uninitiated (like me). This event is also hopefully indicative of efforts by Red Line Productions to expand its footprint in Sydney theatre’s scene.

Photo credit: Luke McKinnon

BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED – SEASON DETAILS

Dates: Playing now until 26 January 2020 (as part of Sydney Festival 2020)
Venue: Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent (Hyde Park North, entry near Archibald Fountain)
Tickets: $70 – $89 (+ booking fee)
Bookings: sydneyfestival.org.au

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