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All images: © Lisa Tomasetti 2010


The Ballad of Backbone Joe, with The Suitcase Royale

Sydney Theatre Company | Wharf 2, Hickson Wharf, Sydney | Until 2 October

It’s worth getting to Wharf 2 just a little earlier than starting time for The Ballad of Backbone Joe. After milling around outside till nearly 8.15 on opening night, immersed in the pre-show chat, we eventually made our way inside to discover that The Suitcase Royale (Joseph O’Farrell, Miles O’Neil and Glen Walton) were already on stage and treating those few who had already seated themselves to some songs before the show proper.

And a huge treat it was. These are musicians of considerable talent and versatility, and watching them perform is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.

These guys have developed their own performance form, appropriately titled “junkyard theatre”. A mash of music, rickety film, bad puns, puppetry, slapstick and purposefully scenery-chewing performances, The Ballad Of Backbone Joe is the group’s fifth full-length work, and it’s an absolute hoot.

Set in 1930s Australia, Backbone Joe follows the tale of tent-boxer Joe and the tragic death of his wife, the woman in the blood-red dress. Was it murder? And if so, who was responsible? And how could that telephone have ‘call waiting’ available in 1937?

The ramshackle, deliberately down-at-heel set is the ideal complement to The Suitcase Royale’s joyfully sinister, irresistibly catchy music. Superficially loose and effortless, in order to achieve that sort of easy, laid-back sense takes extremely talented, sharp musicians.

That they are also unashamedly goofy is a massive bonus. The Guardian (UK) rightly described this troupe as mixing the musical influence of Tom Waits and the anarchic humour of The Mighty Boosh (Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding). This is not sophisticated, subtle humour. It is delightfully silly, often nonsensical, and terrific fun. It also contains what has now become one of my favourite phrases — “as supple as a man’s thigh in winter”. Does it make sense? Does it matter?

It comes a no surprise that The Suitcase Royale are gaining fans and accolade worldwide through various festival appearances, most recently the Edinburgh Fringe.

If you miss The Suitcase Royale’s opening numbers, I’d suggest making up for it with their extremely reasonably priced CD available at the venue. Better yet, get there early and buy the CD as well. Then book tickets to see them again.