Elizabeth Dawson-Smith (Miss Friby) and Louise Purcell performed Galah as a two-woman cabaret show of ‘half-finished … phrases’ (as Friby declared, complete with pregnant pause) that was the sort of wild, woolly and wonderful show only possible when you have exceedingly skilled performers with the space and time to come up with whatever whacked-out ideas have entered their heads. It was cabaret-slick and highly physical with a dark satirical edge, and completely bananas in the best possible way.
They moved from vignette to vignette – in the opening number, Friby sang ‘Where is my mind?’ by The Pixies, clad in a long, baby pink crushed velvet dressing gown and ostentatiously feathered hat. She climbed upon a ladder, her voice ringing out over the backing track, low and pleadingly, her enormous eyes rimmed in glitter and black lashes, and containing more than a hint of madness, until it became clear that this was where things were heading. Friby was going to push the show into the realm of absurdity and we had no idea what to expect. Just then, Purcell barrelled in with a box of black balloons, splitting the box open on her crazed charge through the room. Yep – it was time to strap in, folks.
The show played with the audience and our expectations, pushing us and literally kicking us out at one point. We were, it turned out, a disappointing audience, and we needed to take responsibility for not giving a better performance, and thus enabling Friby to also bring out her best. As a tactic, it was a gamble, but it was early enough in the show, with enough of a sense of buy-in already established for it to work. It was, however, likely to fail just as often as it succeeded, depending on the audience.
In this case we duly came back, amused and chastened, to a funeral – for Friby’s ego. A fitting theme for a wild and psychedelic show like Galah.
One skit they returned to a couple of times was a mimed scene to recorded voiceover, set in a marketing department of an office. Friby and Purcell wore cropped black jackets and highly teased platinum wigs, with disturbing bright pink lip trainers in their mouths, giving them an appropriately plastic appearance to match their marionette-like physical movements. With the drone and treble plinks of 80s-era office noises as audio accompaniment and the stark lighting leaving their shadows cast across the back wall of the old church – the effect was darkly comic with an air of the grotesque.
Galah satirised our individualistic capitalist excesses, our obsession with self and ego, but it also felt as though we’d stepped into some sort of acid-dream edging on a bad trip. The audio design for each section of the show was an important feature, tightly and brilliantly executed and adding to the disco-hallucinogenic vibes. From frenetic choreographed mime with 50s-era voiceover about the importance of women being charming and demure (where both performers wore short sequinned dresses with bags over their heads) it moved through to the thumping club dance number where Friby and Purcell danced wildly, clad in only glittery thongs before pashing passionately.
The whole rollicking absurd affair could have gone off the rails so easily, but with performers as seasoned and talented as Friby and Purcell, they were able to navigate that hair-breadth rail edge, making the experience a breathless, adrenaline-filled marvel.
One particular challenge for the show was the space itself – Footscray’s Bluestone Church Arts Space, a converted church now a hireable multi-use arts space. The stage comprised a raised platform with under-stage lighting and black PVC soft mats surrounding it.
The performance would have been better off in a spiegeltent or circular space with a raised stage, to avoid large sections of the audience having to crane their necks to see what was happening on the floor. This was likely due to the show being supported by Maribrynong City Council’s ‘Room to Create’ program. Hopefully the work will find a new home touring in festivals and find its place in a few spiegeltents where it will shine even brighter.
Galah was absurd and dangerous – like a roller coaster helmed by a couple of carnies with mad glints in their eyes. It pushed the audience’s sense of comfort in a way that made us feel the thrill of being alive. And after all – isn’t feeling alive why we go to the theatre?
Bluestone Church Artspace
Performers and co-devisers: Elizabeth Dawson-smith (Miss Friby), Louise Purcell
Galah was performed from 15-18 June 2023.