Sydney Uni Revue opens with an all-in choral number. A parade of campus characters swing onto stage: the clueless first year, the conniving board director, the privileged college student. “This place will change your life,” they sing. There’s a tenderness here—a genuine celebration of the University itself. Not of the sandstone and the QS rankings. But of the diversity, the comedy, and the people—of the zany, directionless energy that is this place.
And by celebrating directionlessness, this production avoids a pitfall that has caught so many recent Sydney Uni Revues. This show is an annual institution, a selection of highlights from 12 of the previous year’s revues, ranging from faculty ones like Science Revue, to identity revues like Queer Revue. This means Sydney Uni Revue has little chance to develop a unifying artistic vision: its material has already been written and developed and is largely unconnected in subject matter and sense of humour.
In previous years, the directors have tried to find a theme, typically with mixed results. In 2018, Director Edan Lacey is having none of this: Sydney Uni Revue is unapologetically chaotic. The only constant in the chaos is that the show is “Sydney Uni AF”—Sydney Uni as fuck. It’s in love with the place—with the Uni’s chaotic, hilarious potential, warts and all. And in that potential, there’s something for everyone.
Part of the success of this approach lies in the cast. Many of the stars are revue veterans. Many have graduated. Many have said this will be their last campus revue. Theo Murray and his booming timbre, for instance, will no longer grace the Seymour Centre. Rebecca Wong’s exceptional choral direction will be missed, as will Swetha Das’ infectious exuberance. There’s a tinge of nostalgia and an authentic joy as well.
But most importantly, there are some bloody excellent performances, which shine through unhindered by a forced ‘theme’. John Robles’ comedic timing and dancing is outstanding. The show is at its most energetic when he improvises a stand-up comedy ‘warm up act’ for one of the sketches—all delivered in a fake German accent.
Or take Ping-hui Ho, who brings a versatile energy to the musical numbers and sketches alike. She moves seamlessly from singing the role of a suicidal pig to playing a migrant child disillusioned by rice.
Each cast member stands out for their particular talents: Abbey Lenton for her physical comedy and baby voices. Zoë Sitas for her wide-eyed stage presence. Hal Fowkes’ exceptional delivery. Grace Franki’s impersonation of a lower North Shore young liberal, replete with crotch stuffing and RM Williams.
No matter the cast’s brilliance, though, some sketches fall flat. These tend to be shorter comic pieces, which build up to a single, often absurd punchline. Many of these sketches may have resonated with their original revue audiences, who could be presumed to infer more of the humour and get more of the in-jokes.
But in general, the failure of absurd sketches speaks to the cast’s main weakness: none of their acting is particularly believable, leaning towards pastiche and exaggeration. For absurdism to work, the actor must exploit the tension between the ostensibly real and actual illogical. Which means they have to establish the real first—with good, naturalistic acting—and only then invert it.
Ultimately, it’s questionable whether any of the absurd material should have been included, and the directors should have been more willing to tailor the show to its cast’s skills and limitations.
In contrast, the best sketches perform some kind of social critique. These are largely sourced from the identity revues. Take for instance, People of Colour Revue’s excellent parody of the fetishisation of cuisine. If you’re white and think you know what authentic Thai food tastes like, this is a real pause for thought.
But as so often in revues, the musical numbers are the real triumph. Despite some issues with intonation, the band is masterful under Marlowe Fitzpatrick’s direction—at times outdoing the singers in volume as well as performance. Some of the numbers have been rescored since their original outing, and the effect is a new textural richness.
The band is matched by spectacular dancing. Sydney Uni Revue deploys a far smaller cast than that of an ordinary revue, which means there’s no hiding sloppy technique at the back of the throng. Instead, the dancing has to be tight: rarely more than ten cast members are on stage at a given time, and it’s possible to admire each performer’s part in the choreographic whole. For instance, the penultimate dance number, adapted from last year’s Law Revue finale, refocuses the energy of the piece into just a few, incredibly acrobatic performances.
And then there’s the singing. By far the standout is Shannon Sweeney, whose solo in the final choral piece is nothing short of lyrical—a word rarely applicable to a revue. At other points, the solo singing is less impressive. But that said, the choral numbers, under Rebecca Wong’s direction, are excellent: flawlessly harmonised, the cast even manages a spine-tingling a cappella finale.
And what a finale. Sweeney charts our progress at uni, from first year—who’ll be here for the “shortest time”—all the way through to masters student—now here for the “longest time”, churning through degrees until their career prospects can be secured. It’s sobering, yes, and raises questions about job markets and uni fees. But if we are stuck here for such a long time, at least we have this revue to remind us of the crazy, unbridled potential of this place. Is there really any reason to leave?
Sydney Uni Revue shows at the Seymour Centre at 7:30 pm on Thursday 15 March and Friday 16 March.