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Review: Stickybeak at the Malthouse Theatre

Review by Naomi Cardwell

Stickybeak has me so staggered I barely know where to begin. A devised physical comedy piece by an incredibly talented ensemble of four, it’s a surprise and a delight, gloriously funny and completely original. 

The performance begins with a kind of suburban overture, a swelling of neighbourhood sounds and voices which coalesce briefly into human singing. Line by line, the cast trade bars of the Flower Duet, sometimes sweetly, sometimes descending into hilariously guttural bogan twang. Gradually, the song is supplanted with the songs of a family of magpies - voiced and embodied impossibly well by the four actors, who stoop, flap, peck, and warble.

Every sound is produced by the cast themselves, with light and sensitive direction by Lily Fish that feels as though she’s conducting an orchestra. A dog barks. A baby babbles, sucking loudly on its toy doll’s foot. A teenage girl groans drastically at her mum’s lame attempts to relate to her. A flock of Lorna-Jane clad fitness devotees morph into a cackling gang of kookaburras. It’s Saturday morning on a typical Australian suburban street.

The set is sparse, comprised of three front fences, strikingly unalike in dignity. There’s the rusty old corrugated iron length belonging to an elderly couple, who tend their vegetables and stay abreast of everybody’s business. A white picket fence belongs to an affluent family of snobs. Finally, a dilapidated brick fence augmented by milk crates struggles to contain the street’s boisterous and unruly young tenant family. The cast have two tiny black screens behind which they effect their impressive character transitions, and the stage is otherwise bare. 

It’s astounding that with so little they can sketch such a complete and comical picture of class disparity and home ownership in the impossible Australian real estate climate.

There’s very little dialogue in Stickybeak that doesn’t serve the ensemble’s soundscape in some way. We are privy to a family arguing or an old man pressing unwanted fruit into a neighbour’s hands in the same way we’re privy to the din of cats fighting and babies wailing. All the sounds melt together and come apart at odd junctures, fragmented as though heard through the window on a sleepy afternoon.

The actors’ physical skills are outstanding. It’s mesmerising, watching Kimberley Twiner inch across the stage as a snail, feelers blindly tasting the air. Twiner is an uncommonly gifted performer, rubber-faced and rubber-limbed, with a deep empathy for her characters and a hilarious talent for sculpting herself into all sorts of expressive, unexpected shapes. 

Jessie Ngaio as Psycho, the loveable and completely brainless dog and the half-wild toddler Little Feral Duncan has me wheezing with laughter. Her movements and facial expressions as Psycho’s health troubles shave off a few extra brain cells are hysterically funny, and the actor commits to her demanding physical roles with impressive tenacity. 

Patrick Dwyer has an almost liquid skill for embodying character. His interpretation of a pretentious but terribly mistreated housewife is stirringly delicate, fussy, and feminine in every little gesture and expression - and yet within seconds, he’s a convincingly harangued dad trying to keep his chaotic family under control. 

One only needs to watch the audience to appreciate Laura Trenerry’s mastery of the room. The actress portrays an overbearing, obnoxious husband so convincingly that audible ripples of disgust roll through the theatre. Within seconds, she’s switched character to a little girl – babbling, giggling, and foisting her tattered doll upon the others – and the audience lights up with delight. It’s powerful to see an actor move between registers in a heartbeat, and magnetically bring a whole room full of people along with such alacrity and apparent ease.

In a word, the insanely talented collective that call themselves The Beaks are formidable. It’s a rare treat to find a piece of performance art as touching, off-the-chain talented, and hilarious as Stickybeak. These are the gems you hope to uncover every Comedy festival - and to think, they’ve been right here in our front yard all along.

Image Supplied


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