Opening up a can of worms

Drew Forsythe, Jonathan Biggins, Phil Scott and Amanda Bishop (left to right) will appear in The Wharf Revue - Can of Worms in November and December. Image: Brett Boardman.

The Wharf Revue is renowned for its scathingly incisive social commentary. The Sentinel spoke with team member Drew Forsythe about trying to keep up with an ever churning news cycle of source material.

“Well, this year, we’ve actually written too much. We’ve had to drop things because the show was just going on too long,” laughs Drew Forsythe, one third of the Wharf Revue, with Jonathan Biggins and Phil Scott.

The last two years have certainly been eventful – and for the trio, that’s grist for the mill. Their brand of humour follows in the tradition of vaudeville style revue with sketches, impersonations, parody songs, a little bit of slapstick and a lot of witty satire. 

Forsythe, Biggins and Scott performed their first revue more than 20 years ago and it has been a comic institution ever since. Each year – barring a pandemic – the show comes back in a new iteration and theme. This year’s theme is ‘Can of Worms’ – because once they pop the lid, it’s bedlam!

Forsythe is thrilled that they’ll be able to perform the show live to a responsive crowd. 

“It is very important to actually hear the feedback from the audience. A lot of what you do, you’re informed by the audience. The audience is like another member of the cast in a show like this,” he explains. 

Drew Forsythe as Pauline Hanson in The Wharf Revue, 2018. Image: Brett Boardman.

There’s a pantomime element to the performances, with ‘villains’ (nasty politicians) receiving boos and groans from the audience. 

Forsythe, Biggins and Scott each play several characters (i.e. real life personalities). 

“Jonathan does a very good Trump, he does a brilliant Paul Keating. Phillip is doing a John Howard in this particular one,” says Forsythe. 

The characters aren’t always in context; sometimes, they’re used as a vehicle. For example, to talk about the housing crisis they start with Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs and that launches into a Wizard Of Oz parody using the phrase, ‘There’s no place like home.’

Each year, they’re joined by a guest female performer. In the past that’s included Genevieve Lemon, Helen Dallimore, Katrina Retallick and Valerie Bader.

This year their Yellow Wiggle is Amanda Bishop, who will embody a diverse range of personalities. 

“We’ve got Michaelia Cash, we’ve got Gladys and we’ve got Ivanka and we’ve got the Queen and we’ve got Pauline Hanson and Bridget McKenzie, Jacinda – she’s quite a good one – and Jacqui Lambie,” enthuses Forsythe. 

Writing a show in which the content is based on current affairs has inherent hazards. Forsythe says they try to select subjects that have a reasonable shelf life, but in politics, that’s like throwing a dart at a floating balloon. 

Jonathan Biggins, Phillip Scott, Amanda Bishop and Drew Forsythe in Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Revue, 2015. Image: Brett Boardman.

“Like Gladys – no one saw that coming!” he laughs. 

There have been times where they’ve had to pivot on a coin at the eleventh hour. In 2016, the team was preparing to start a season in Canberra. They’d arrived on a Monday and the show commenced the next day. 

“There was a press conference and Malcom Turnbull was gonna make an announcement,” continues Forsythe, “and by the evening we found out that he toppled Tony Abbott. We had a whole section on the Liberals based on ‘Les Liberables’ and we spent the whole night rewriting that sketch.”

Occasionally, the show veers towards more sombre material. In this show, there’s a segment addressing the ongoing refugee crisis. 

“We haven’t solved the refugee problem, not by any means. And that’s still something that we should be ashamed of …in the show we do our version of Come From Away, which is ‘Go Far Away’,” says Forsythe. 

He also describes a moment last year, when he was in lockdown writing. He was watching something about the pandemic in USA and in the background was the sound of sirens. That generated a very poignant song parody called ‘The Sounds Of Sirens’ (based on Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sounds of Silence’).

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So what’s the impetus that has kept this trio pumping out comic entertainment year after year for two decades? Put simply: they love it and always have something to say. 

“If you have a passion about something, if you feel angry about something, it sure does help how you write. You’re driven by your passion,” says Forsythe. “We tend to write for ourselves, too. We write for the people we play and we know we can play.”

There’s no doubt they write for their audiences too. 

Forsythe and the gang are champing at the bit to get on stage, so it promises to be an energetic, enthusiastic show. 

“It’ll be fantastic, I hope. So long as we get a decent sized house and they won’t be too afraid to laugh contagiously.”

Not sure if that pun was intended.

The Wharf Revue: Can of Worms plays the York Theatre, Seymour Centre, cnr City Road and Cleveland Street, Chippendale, from Tuesday, 23 November to Thursday, 23 December, 2021. For more information and bookings, visit www.seymourcentre.com/event/the-wharf-revue-can-of-worms/.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.