By this point in time it’s hard to imagine your average Australian being unaware of at least some of the film or television productions of Working Dog; with programs such as Frontline, The Panel and Thank God You’re Here, as well as the absolute classic Aussie movie The Castle under their belt, they’re the unofficial keepers of our comedic cultural lexicon. Therefore, this first foray onto the stage (unofficial adaptations of The Castle aside) is an exciting next step for the team lead by Santo Cilauro, Rob Sitch and Tom Gleisner.
It’s perhaps just a tiny bit disappointing then, that the story they have chosen to tell here isn’t one focused on our own backyard, but instead the nucleus of the American political leadership. It’s quite possible to envision the plotline of this presidential ‘backroom’ comedy to have been one originally dreamt up as a premise for Working Dog’s 2008 ABC series The Hollowmen, but the scale of the concept being one too big to be believable to apply to our Prime Minister.
Instead we are set aboard Air Force One on Christmas Eve as the US President and his team of dissolute political manipulators, return from making a successfully uplifting speech to the people, and bleeding the word ‘humanity’ for all its worth. In transit they decide that a quick detour to make a surprise, festive visit to the British PM in London will bring a few votes by adding power to their proposition of the president’s benevolence and comity. Not long into the trip, intelligence comes in of a major terrorist plot to assassinate a world leader, but it soon seems being forewarned of such a menace offers little opportunity to arrest the threat.
The script is full of trademark Working Dog style: cannily observed stereotypes, witty satire and broad, farcical gags. It’s not the finest theatrical comedy you’ll ever see but it’s intelligent, entertaining and tidy, coming in at a neat 90 minutes. Further the pedigree of its makers has attracted a starry cast including Erik Thomson, Kat Stewart, Toby Truslove and Lachy Hulme.
Much like reality though, this is an ensemble piece, with really only the President starring amongst his team of ‘advisors’. In that role, Erik Thomson doesn’t stretch a long way from his Dave Rafter persona as the nicest guy in the room, but as his President discovers he’s really just a puppet for his scheming team, we get to see some well-honed development in character.
Making up his team of stereotypical White House players are Nicholas Bell as the business-like Chief of Staff, Kat Stewart as a spry and self-interested political advisor, Jane Harber as a stuffy, power-dressing head of security, Sheridan Harbridge as a glossy, inescapable PR girl in the guise of Press Secretary, and Toby Truslove as a whiny and egocentric speechwriter with no true sense of responsibility.
The Hollowmen alumni, David James and Lachy Hulme prove to be excellent adversaries in style to Thomson, as the immoral Secretary and Under Secretary of Defence. James, the unscrupulous nabob satisfied with an irresponsible fait accompli, and Hulme the frightening quiet, backroom manipulator archetype.
Harry Shearer (best known for being half the voices in The Simpsons) makes an hilarious cameo as the Secretary of Homeland Security with a few communication problems, while Brent Hill sweeps in and out of scenes at a brisk pace, often stealing the spotlight (and our hearts) with his camp affectations as Head Steward on Air Force One and confidante of the President.
Director Sam Strong keeps the action moving from scene to scene with an almost incessantly turning revolve, whipping us from one end of the plane to another. While Dale Ferguson’s luxurious looking set full of reclining, leather seats and all the technology you’d expect aboard AF1, is justified by the almost sold out season.
Much as they did with their television series Frontline in the 90s, skewering the corrupt nature of TV current affairs reporting, Working Dog’s The Speechmaker takes aim squarely at the shady objectives of today’s political power players and paints a frightening, yet satirical picture, of the way the US, and perhaps the wider world, is run.