When I first saw Glynn Nicholas perform he was in a dress – on ABC's The Big Gig playing Paté Biscuit, a drag parody of children's entertainer Patsy Biscoe – but today I'm asking him for advice on manhood. This week sees the relaunch of Nicholas' stage musical Certified Male, a paean to the troubled state of modern masculinity, so it seems appropriate to get a few tips, man to man, on how to be a good bloke.
"Firstly," Nicholas advises, "if you have kids, you've got to respect them... And don't buy into the whole Mum Knows Best thing, you need to have your own relationship with them." I note that for future reference. "Be comfortable in your own skin. Keep yourself under control when things don't go well. Meet your wife on equal terms." Duly noted. "And get things sorted out with your Dad."
Certified Male, written by Nicholas together with Scott Rankin in 1999, is a definitive treatment of modern Australian masculinity. Three men on a corporate retreat are forced by their boss to compete for dwindling jobs in their downsizing company and under pressure their personal demons become exposed. The show employs a combination of humour and heartfelt drama, with Nicholas' trademark style of mime-based physical comedy in counterpoint to songs from such troubadours of the male heart as Paul Kelly and Mark Seymour.
Nicholas believes that the timing is good for a relaunch, with the GFC having rattled male egos worldwide. "Fear of job loss is very prevalent now, it's more in the zeitgeist," he says. "Men's identity is all tied up in how they make their living, and those questions and fears are all there in this play."
The new tour, starting in Perth and also going to Mandurah in West Australia and Hobart, will serve as a kind of test run for an updated version of the show before it plays in London's West End with a British cast later this year. Certified Male has already done well in Europe and Nicholas is hoping that a West End run will give it some extra cachet both here in Australia, where the updated version will do another larger tour next year, and in other overseas markets. "It could conceivably be a Broadway show," he says.
Nicholas is confident in the show's universal resonance. While the world of corporate high-flyers, going to tropical island retreats and trying to outdo each other in masculine challenges of Hemingwayesque proportions, may be a far cry from many of our lives – and certainly from Nicholas' own background as a busker, comedian and mime artist – he sees the underlying dynamics as common to male kind everywhere. Men like to be competing, he says, whether that's trying to hook the biggest marlin or, as Nicholas himself does, racing motorbikes on the weekend. "Part of the joy of the onstage dynamics in Certified Male is in the competition between the men: always trying to get the others and shifting allegiances while still trying to keep in with the boss, the whole time scared to death."
Common too, the depths of private pain that can underpin all that bravado, and where Certified Male achieves its deepest resonance is in its honest depictions of the men's secret emotional struggles. Having performed in the play himself numerous times, Nicholas says he's seen the characters strike chords with men and women alike. "I would look down into the audience and see women nudging their menfolk saying, 'That's you up there'."
The hurt from emotionally distant relations between men and their fathers – a theme that forms an emotional high point in the show and one Nicholas has said was a strong personal influence when writing it – is something he feels is especially prevalent. "Corporate types have more money so they're able to cover it up with fast cars, sexy girlfriends, big houses... they're able to cover over the pain but it's worldwide and it hasn't changed in the last fifty years."
Nicholas himself is performing only in the Perth leg of the current tour, this time as the older boss character, the play's metaphorical father figure. While he is enjoying taking a break from the intensive mime work required of the younger roles, between directing, spruiking the show and developing new scripts he has plenty to do. Selling new Australian work is hard, he says, in Australia as well as overseas, but if the upcoming tour is a success, Certified Male could act as an icebreaker to get more original productions on stage.
He has three new works in development and if they deliver anything like Certified Male's mix of heart and humour they'll be worth waiting for. In the meantime, you've got plenty of time to go call your Dad or chat to your kids now, don't you?
Certified Male is now playing at Perth's Regal Theatre until August 26, 2012, before touring. For details visit certifiedtheshow.com/aus
Top Right – Glynn Nicholas. Photographer – David Russell
Bottom Right – cast of Certified Male