Schapelle, Schapelle | Piano Room ProductionsIf you are looking for a sensitive or analytical dramatisation of the personalities and issues at play in the infamous drug-trafficking case of Schapelle Corby, her subsequent imprisonment, and the surrounding media frenzy that dominated Australia’s mainstream and especially tabloid news for years… Schapelle, Schapelle: A Strange Exotic Trip from Brizzie to Bali probably isn’t the show for you. Then again, the whole prospect of a satirical musical about Schapelle Corby in the first place is perhaps not an idea that lends itself to nuance, so much it does to broad strokes. Very broad strokes indeed.

This unapologetically camp and irreverent musical could perhaps be described as more in the vein of a spoof or even a roast, as it takes what was presumably intended as an “even handed” approach to ridiculing the Corbys and the attending media alike, and lets them all have a blast from both barrels. And to be fair to the group-devised show’s multiple writers, Schapelle Corby herself is portrayed with the least amount of overt mockery or caricature, and her imprisonment and suffering is not, in any sustained way, played for laughs. Or not as much as you might expect, given the production’s lampooning style, let alone it being the choice of subject matter for a comedy in the first place.

The text of the musical also wisely takes a relatively agnostic approach to the highly contested question of Schapelle’s actual guilt or innocence. A joke early on implies culpability from Corby’s father for stashing the drugs in her luggage, as opposed to exploring the several other theories put forward by her lawyers and supporters. Whether she herself was an accomplice, pawn or innocent mule, however, is left unanswered.

In what is probably the play’s most sophisticated creative choice, it even avoids actually dramatising the crucial moment in which the infamous 4.2 kilos of marijuana was discovered when Corby’s bodyboard bag was opened in front of her by Indonesian customs officers. To have done so would have presented no good options – playing it for serious drama would have felt disingenuous to the established tone of the show, while directly spoofing the incident would potentially have been the lowest point of tastelessness.

This tasteful restraint largely stops there, mind you, as Corby’s entire family are portrayed in the broadest of stereotypes, largely conforming to contemporaneous attempts by the media to characterise them as hopelessly crass, shallow bogans with a more than probable connection to drug culture. Then again, the media figures themselves arguably get it worse, being represented as heinously cruel, venal backstabbing incompetents who would gladly make deals with the devil to advance their careers. These trash journalists seem entirely uncaring about the consequences for the subjects of their stories, never regarding them as real human beings.

The shameless exploitation of Schapelle and the Corbys by an indifferent media looking for sensationalistic and even engineered content to bolster their ratings and the circulation of the gutter press is interesting subject matter, to be sure. Yet while this skewering of the debased standards of journalism in a festering media culture in many respects has only grown more relevant in our current age of clickbait, post-truth “fake news”, and Cambridge Analytica’s depredations upon the fabric of reality. But the way this production has gone about it is a bit of a catch-22. It’s all very well to point the finger at the media circus for treating the Corbys like freaks for our entertainment, but you can’t then turn around and simultaneously portray the Corbys as basically being circus freaks after all.

Granted, it needn’t be an either/or proposition, and one doesn’t have to suggest that the Corbys were flawless people in order to sink in the boot at the exploitative “journalism” that besieged them. Indeed, the show does point out that various people around Schapelle were at least somewhat complicit in their own treatment as media currency. But it's a messy and complicated set of questions to unpack, and is thus perhaps a story warranting a more insightful dramatisation, even if still in comedic musical form. One doesn’t want to discourage the early efforts of some clearly talented young theatre-makers, but this show has its origins as a piece devised for university performances, and it shows. Its approach to the topic would be fine as a series of revue sketches, but as a feature-length musical it requires further development.

One thing that this show certainly can’t be dinged for is the aforementioned talent on display. While the music is solid and the lyrics passably witty, the actors are much stronger, with an extremely energetic cast of seven whose polished performances belie the seemingly shoestring production values. Indeed, one might even say this is a cast worthy of better material, were it not for the fact that many of the actors are in fact the writers. So rather than castigate their shortcomings, let’s try to encourage their potential.

All the performers are strong, with Ruby Teys and Emily Kimpton particularly notable in their uproariously extreme comedic turns as, respectively, Schapelle’s sister Mercedes, and the dual roles of mother Rosleigh and Bali Nine cellmate Renae Lawrence. If one can put aside the question of whether the real-life women in question deserve to be represented so unsympathetically, these are undeniably hilarious performances by actors with excellent comic timing. Similarly eye-catching in two smaller roles was Jack Dodds as both preening “Knox Boy” journo Simon, and simpleton Corby brother Mick Junior.

By comparison the rest of the talented cast seems almost restrained, and none moreso than Kelsi Boyden in the title role. Despite, or perhaps because of being afforded the closest thing in this bawdy show to a “straight man” part, Boyden gets to flex at least a little of her dramatic chops in addition to the comedic. She acquits herself well, escaping the text’s potential for Schapelle to merely become a cypher for how the narrative noncommittally frames her character.

One risks too self-seriously critiquing a show which is, quite clearly, not trying to take itself that seriously at all. There is a certainly a place for satire of public figures and the media nonsense that surrounds them, and it would seem from their sold-out short season and enthusiastic reaction of the attending crowd, that this material certainly has its audience. Perhaps a more considered approach to the less than cut-and-dried true story it is adapting would have been preferable, yet this is an undeniably funny and energetic show, provided that you can get on board with the tone at which it is pitched.

Piano Room Productions presents
Schapelle, Schapelle
by Music by Gabbi Bolt, Jack Dodds & Tim Hansen; Book by Jack Dodds, Abby Gallaway, Mitch Lourigan & Gareth Thomson; Lyrics by Jack Dodds, Tim Hansen & Garteth Thomson

Director Abby Gallaway

Venue: Fuse Box | Factory Theatre, 105 Victoria Road, Marrickville NSW
Dates: 31 July – 3 August 2019
Tickets: $25



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