By Nick Pilgrim
This review may contain spoilers.
Postponed this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the 2021 Midsumma Festival is Victoria’s leading LGBTQI+ celebration. A diverse mix of local and international acts and artists, the three-week calendar includes cabaret, film, music, public forums, social events, spoken word, sport, theatre, and the visual arts.
One of the anticipated event highlights is Noel Anderson’s latest play, “Billy Loves Cha Cha Forever”. Anderson is an award-winning playwright whose works include “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame”, “Audrey Hepburn and I Consider Our Assets”, and “Dark Victory”.
“Billy Loves Cha Cha Forever” has a fascinating genesis. Written twenty-five years ago as a gift to a friend, Anderson revisited the story during lockdown in 2020 with a view to getting it professionally staged. Set in Sydney’s Kings Cross fifty years ago, the two-act tale is a powerful character study.
With allusions to iconic motion picture genres like mob crime, hard luck stories, and especially film noir, “Billy Loves Cha Cha Forever” may also be read as an unrequited love triangle at heart. Think “Midnight Cowboy”, “Johns”, “Taxi Driver”, and “Star 80” meets “The Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Crying Game”, and you’ll get the idea.
Kings Cross is a brisk ten-minute walk from the heart of Sydney. With its long history as a tourism drawcard, the area is known for a heady mix of nightlife, bars and strip clubs. Better known as The Cross, the inner-city bohemia carries a fair share of notoriety as well. Since World War Two, Kings Cross evolved into a burgeoning red-light district, a place to make fast money, and a hub for illicit drug taking. Once word got out, people living on the periphery of society flocked there in droves.
That the author also lived in Kings Cross during the nineties, paints his vision with equal doses of glossy fantasy and gritty realism. His characters are written with love. Enough to make them flawed and damaged, with the ability to recalibrate themselves at a moment’s notice.
Supported by Daniel Cook’s assistant direction, it should be noted that Anderson is the show’s director. Together, their intelligent pacing balances the plot’s high drama with more quiet moments. This decision serves a handful of purposes. Viewers are given time to know and understand each character, their dreams and desires, as well as allowing the actors to connect and intertwine with one another and the audience.
Sebastiano Pitruzzello is bold and unabashed as Billy. The story’s twelve-month timeline gives the young actor solid opportunities to showcase the character’s evolution from an innocent runaway to an experienced player.
As his employer and mentor, Luke Styles brings muscular bravado to the role of Louis. His take on this complex thug adds a menacing edge to a loose cannon at odds with the world around him.
Samuel Thompson (as Cha Cha) draws on his background as a drag performer to give an uncompromising performance. Disappearing into the role, he can work the room balls to the wall in one moment. Then, drop his guard and become vulnerable in the next.
As a collective trio, you can’t take your eyes off them.
An original song written specifically for the play by Daniel Abineri, is expanded on by Ron Michaelis’ and Dan Taylor’s soundtrack. Patrick Slee is responsible for the subtle (yet technically demanding) sound and lighting. His work, combined with stylised, prop-driven set design by Sarah Yeung (constructed by Boxwars) adds to the overall vintage appeal.
Established in 2008, this is the first work by Cracked Actors Theatre (or CAT for short) at their dedicated new base. All credit must be given to the team for supporting and developing new Australian content.
Adjacent to Albert Park Lake, their intimate black box venue is ideal for this kind of piece. Meaning, the combination of a wide stage space and letterbox proscenium add to the Anderson’s cinematic atmosphere. That the audience sits right on top of the action, allows viewers to be at one with the actors, and the story at all times.
Staying with you long after the final curtain drop, “Billy Loves Cha Cha Forever” plays for the full duration of Midsumma until Wednesday 5 May.