Performance reviews: The Hotline, Poet No.7 and Zaffé, Melbourne Fringe Festival

An on-demand pregnancy hotline, post-apocalyptic Melbourne and reimagining of a traditional Lebanese wedding at Melbourne Fringe 2023.
The Hotline. Three people sit at a table laden with food while a man stands behind them.

The Hotline

This free audio work skewering pregnancy “helplines” seethes at the injustice of a misogynistic
healthcare system – it’s confronting, infuriating and playful all at once.

Accessed anywhere, anytime via a 1800 number, The Hotline is an immersive, intimate experience inviting audiences to consider the failings of Australia’s current reproductive healthcare system. Though allowing you to dial-your-own-adventure, you certainly won’t be able to choose abortion. Each rabbit hole is engrossing, however, and will leave you dialling again and again to discover all the available options.

Kasey Gambling is hilarious as a passive-aggressive, saccharine operator, offering sarcastic takedowns of Tony Abbott and Brian Harradine, and patronising parenting advice with delightful indifference, while Josie Steele’s sound design aptly captures the annoyingly cheerful hold music. Finally, anonymous voices sharing their lived experiences of reproductive healthcare services ground the experience in heartbreaking reality and leave one churning over the state of reproductive healthcare well after hanging up.


The Hotline
Created by: Kasey Gambling
Sound design: Josie Steele

The Hotline is available on demand from 3-22 October; free.

Poet No.7

Written in 2006, Ben Ellis’ Poet No.7 envisioned a post-apocalyptic Melbourne of the near future
where Indigenous berries are patented by corporations, and magpies – gorged on genetically-modified corn – still swoop in spring. Though at first the exact nature of the dystopian future seemed nebulous, over time Ellis’ narrative unravelled and converged towards a startling climax. Revisiting this 17-year-old play in 2023 brought an interesting perspective to Ellis’ imaginings, but the play’s vision still felt distant and futuristic.

The poetry this piece concerns itself with isn’t so much the floral and intricate kind, but rather a
tapestry of monologues, which, in the capable hands of Damien Warren-Smith, was captivating and vivid. Poet No.7 saw Warren-Smith, perhaps better known to Fringe-goers as bumbling actor Garry Starr, flex his dramatic muscles, playing all four of the play’s roles as a solo actor. Though the performance was set up like a staged reading, with no props, set or lighting, Warren-Smith, powered by sheer presence and imagination, managed to quickly transport the audience into the world of the play, conjuring a place where bombs glowed in the sky and roses were blue. He hopped effortlessly between the play’s four characters, bringing the gaiety of an infatuated schoolgirl to librarian Ella, a virile brashness to businessman Mark, a restrained quality to erudite eulogy-giver Gillian and a wildness to neurotic psychotropic drug guinea pig X. Poet No.7 was worth watching for Warren-Smith’s performance alone.


Poet No.7
Written by: Ben Ellis
Performed by: Damien Warren-Smith

Poet No.7 was shown from 5-7 October at Festival Hub: Trades Hall, Old Council Chambers.


As time passes, cultural traditions are reinvented; each new generation rereads the poetry of their
past and writes their own stanza. Zaffé sees an ensemble of young artists from the Middle Eastern
diaspora reimagine the Lebanese wedding tradition of Zaffé as a commemoration of lost people and
culture, an ode to resilience and an exploration of the delicate the balance between celebration and
calamity. This isn’t any regular Zaffé as the diaspora is in charge – there’s no bride or groom, but
there are pop songs remixed with Arabic lyrics and loving send-ups of gossiping aunties and
sardonic jokes about sanctions. And underneath it all is the pain of being uprooted from homelands, the longing for family and place, palpable with every beat of the drum.

Read: Performance reviews: Best of the Fest and Me, My Cult & I, Sydney Fringe Festival

Though transpiring on the top floor of the Malthouse, at no point does the performance feel staged
– this is a generous sharing of culture, where the raqwa (coffee pot) is boiled, and everyone joins the
dabke (circle dance). Ayman Kaake and Lara Week’s set design is beautiful to behold, and their
attention to detail is exquisite and greatly enhances the experience. The performers are disarming
and genuine, and each of their multidisciplinary contributions is cleverly embedded into the
performance and given time to shine. Zaffé welcomes you in and gets you laughing and clapping
together, so when the tone shifts from raucous to reflective, it’s potent and affecting. Come for the party, stay for the message – Zaffé is one to bring a friend and dress up for.


Created by: Stéphanie Ghajar and Collaborators
Set design: Ayman Kaake and Lara Week
Produced by: Stéphanie Ghajar and Lara Week

Zaffé is showing from 5-15 October at Malthouse Theatre.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Lakshmi Ganapathy is an emerging journalist and theatre-maker who has performed at Melbourne Fringe, AsiaTOPA, Darebin FUSE and La Mama's War-Rak/Banksia Festival, and created content for La Trobe University, ArtsHub, RMITV and C31. She is currently the Melbourne Content Creator for Indian Link Media Group, an award-winning publication empowering the South Asian diaspora. She is also a passionate arts advocate, helping run various campaigns to save theatre at La Trobe, and is the Secretary of the Australian Women Directors' Alliance. In her spare time, Lakshmi enjoys crochet and taking photographs of flowers for her Instagram @lakshmilikesflowers.