Review by Alison Stoddart
Its long way from the smoky carpet squelch of a late night at Melbourne’s Esplanade “Espy” Hotel in the 1980s, to a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon at Sydney’s Pier 2 Neilson Room theatre. Deborah Conway has travelled that distance and a lot more besides. Much of the journey with Willy Zygier, the latter time as partners. And in Songs from the Book of Life she shares some of that journey through performance and song.
Fashion model, iconic pop star, sometime actor (but “never a dancer”) and lately a successful writer, Deborah Conway presents her show as part of the Sydney Festival at Walsh Bay Pier. To an audience which is mostly of similar age to Conway, keen to hear her unmistakeable voice sing her musical hits or listen to her tell anecdotes from her recent memoir of the same name. We get both. A performance ranging from straight monologue, storytelling, acting, singing of course, stage pacing and even to some dancing. Covering 1980’s pop culture excesses and personalities, the early abandonment of her Jewish faith and later re-affirmation, growing up in a house of anxiety created by a violent bi-polar father, and through it all life-affirming anecdotes of her relationship with her partner on stage and in life, Willy Zygier.
Conway and Zygier perform their songs stripped back and acoustic. He fills the room with guitar, mandolin, percussion and lovingly delivering props as needed. And always Conway’s extraordinary voice is the highlight. A singular, instantly recognisable tone which remains powerful, clear and evocative. Half a dozen or more songs during a ninety-minute performance – from classics ingrained in Australian culture to more recent deeply emotional material.
The show uses a bare stage dressed in a tall curtain of fabric strips, onto which are projected images, video and graphics that illustrate Conway’s stories. Video grabs of 1980’s Donnie Sutherland and Roy Slavin (“why are you so angry Deborah” Roy ironically asks a very young Conway), graphics that intertwine, expand, and resolve as her stories follow, and what appear to be very personal photos of Conway, Zygier, daughters, their friends and family.
Conway opens the show confronting the audience directly. “Why are you here?” she asks. She believes she knows. She revisits the success and break-up of Do Re Mi, her hit Its Only The Beginning, and tells of touring Europe, euphemistically hammering ‘nails in father’s coffin’. A prosaic acknowledgement of the rock’n’roll lifestyle she led (a sly joke about Michael Gudinski’s “nose [sniff] ……… for a hot song”)
After each memoir, each story told, a song with that voice to drive it home – powerful to make a point or sweet and lyrical to reminisce. A middle act recounting her rapprochement to Judaism starts restrained and melancholic but builds to a confronting and forceful exposition of the anti-semitism still occurring in her immediate life and the wider world. To emphasise the point, Conway and Zygier launch into a driving performance of Everbody’s Begging and its appropriate lyrics.
Of course, Conway and Zygier know themselves, their legacy and they know their audience. She acknowledges the audience is present to hear one song specifically. Almost at the end, they relent and close the show with a rousing version of Its Only the Beginning.
After a standing ovation, Zygier breaks character to deliver a coda, projecting audience questions onto the screen behind. Conway smiles with her answers.
And then the final, final number. The iconic riff of Man Overboard kicks in. Conway’s voice soars. She reminds us again that, as we wallow in trivia, she cares about the things she loves. The affection between the two performers explodes as, whether scripted or truly spontaneous, they dance.