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Review: The Dismissal, Squabbalogic

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The long awaited musical The Dismissal finally gets a full run at the Seymour Centre, filled with plenty of comedy and nerve to confirm it as one of the best original Australian musicals of the decade.

Aussie musical theatre stalwart Squabbalogic brings one of the most talked about moments in Australian political history to life with its world premiere in Sydney’s Seymour Centre. With Gough Whitlam (Justin Smith) winning over hearts and minds of Australians as Prime Minister, the show looks into the tense history of the time and the events that culminated in his dismissal by Governor General Sir John Kerr (Octavia Barron Martin).

The narrator is Norman Gunston (Matthew Whittet), playing the satirical TV personality of Garry McDonald. He takes the audience through Whitlam’s famed Parliament House speech, and gives context to the dissolution of the Labor government and dismissal of Whitlam as Prime Minister in favor of Liberal Malcolm Fraser (Andrew Cutliffe). Gunston is more heightened in his recollection of the time, with plenty of comedic asides and dances, and Whittet does a great job of interacting with the audience and re-engaging them between slower paced vignettes of the story. As a narrative device he gives additional context to the many players that were involved, including Justice Garfield Barwick (Peter Carroll) and Margaret Whitlam (Brittany Shipway), helping guide the story through the drama and beyond.

The Dismissal is brilliant, clever and amusing – easily one of the best original Australian musicals of the decade. For those who remember it well, it’s a hilarious turn on the people and events that happened, and for those who aren’t as similar with the events, it’s a strong summary of the situation and warning to the political state of affairs that could happen again. Packed full of political satire, brilliant choreography and some of the best on stage performances this season, it’s a must see show that packs a strong punch due to its cast and crew.

The success of the show belongs almost entirely to Laura Murphy, whose music and lyrics are sharp, enjoyable and captivating. Blake Erickson’s book is solid too, albeit full of too many moments of editorializing and making a point over entertainment, particularly with its many false endings. Jay James-Moody does a good job of directing within the space and absorbs the audience through many set changes, as well as carefully interwoven the lighting and visual cues sprinkled throughout. Set and costume designers? Charles Davis and Emma White use a retractable stage to create more space as needed. A split flap display looming above the stage declares the changing times and locations while also reminding the audience about the impending decision that will be made. Costumes help solidify each time period on stage and help us get a good understanding of the class warfare at play. Particular costuming and set design is accounted for with the Chief Justice and his appearances throughout the production.

There is a warning at the heart of the musical about the existing democratic process and England’s power in Australia. However, it leans too heavy handedly into it that it (just clarify what ‘it’ refers to) almost undermines the intelligence of the audience, stretching the show’s final act as a result. Indeed, some additional editing and overcrowded scenes could be cut to keep it under three hours (including interval), while at times it skims over important factors like Whitlam’s own contributions to his downfall. By the end, a slideshow of how things have changed (or not changed) seeks to make a bigger judgement on politics in Australia, but falls flat because of the bloat of the show.

Luckily, these problems are minor and the musical succeeds by integrating issues, quotes and personas that we are aware of in Australian politics today, into the show. Squabbalogic’s different approach to new musical releases and reinventing classics makes The Dismissal the perfect production for them to take to theatregoers and wins on many levels. Missing this one would be a mistake.

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