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‘Cool and refreshing’: Med Revue 2022, ‘Pandemic! at the Disco’

Like a pathogen emerging from the receding permafrost, Med Revue has come back to life with a vengeance.

‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,’ says the popular adage. But what does one do when life gives you a pandemic? How do you squeeze the juice out of a public health crisis? Director Alisha Sethi and her creative team have answered this challenge with their cool and refreshing pandemic-flavoured comedy show, Pandemic! at the Disco. Through numbers witty, profound, and obscene, this year’s Med Revue marks a solid comeback after two consecutive seasons of COVID-induced revue limbo.

The on-stage band, directed by Emily Quick and Michael How, was a particular highlight of this year’s show. The band showcased their skill early in the night with a spin on The Lion King’s ‘Be Prepared’ with lyrics by Nayana Jose, Annie Sun, Joyce Chan, and vocal director Fi Fraser, band arrangement by Emily Quick, and choir arrangement by vocal director Anna-Katarina Hicks. The song introduced us to the show’s recurring villain: none other than SARS-CoV-2, played by Siupeli Haukoloa. Haukoloa’s formidable vocal skill made this anthropomorphised virion a strangely compelling character. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world would be to peer down an electron microscope at an infected cell, and see thousands of small Haukoloas dancing and cackling away.

The show included a number of sketches that traded on insider humour, like ‘The Physicians Who Say JVP’, which (unsurprisingly) featured a pack of doctors leaping around and chanting ‘JVP! JVP!!’’. (I learned later from Wikipedia that this stands for jugular venous pressure, which is apparently useful in the diagnosis of various diseases of the heart and lungs.) ‘Sorting Stethoscope’ saw Justine Schipper and Billy Lamrock-George allocating a cast of groan-worthy names to USyd’s various clinical schools, including Harry Pertussis and his friends Ronald Measley and Hermione Gangrene. The cast’s thoughts on the different clinical schools were further clarified in the following sketch: the musically impressive ‘Clinical School Rap Battle’, written by Eric Shen. 

On the more accessible end of the spectrum was ‘Mad Hatter Surgery’, a brilliant mime routine in which a surgeon (played by Jayesh Dua) does heinous things with a patient’s brain and viscera. This occurs in perfect sync with grotesque squelching and slopping noises emitted by Daniel Mansour from the other end of the stage.

The show’s long incubation period resulted in many performances that had evidently been polished to perfection. Joyce Chan’s moving rendition of ‘Doctor’s Licence’ and Abigail Chang’s performance in ‘Love Story’, a sketch about a Romeo and Juliet separated by LGA restrictions, were particular standouts in this department. However – as is the case with any revue – there were a few others that could have used a bit more time in the writers’ room. 

Some of the show’s funniest bits were also among its shortest. An offhand insinuation about the fate of A/Prof Suzanne Ollerenshaw’s ex-husband had the audience wheezing until well into the next sketch, and probably scared a few people into taking histology more seriously too — a win-win, in my opinion.

The one sketch I found wholly inexplicable was ‘Protesters’, a video purporting to be the medicine faculty’s official guide to busting through picket lines on your way to class. I can only assume it meant to satirise the faculty’s insistence on in-person attendance during industrial action. It was strange, then, that the video made fun of strikers but not strikebreakers. Its basic premise – that workers defending their livelihoods are pesky nuisances to be outwitted by clever medical students using techniques ranging from ‘faking a medical emergency’ to ‘brute force’ – was tasteless, regardless of intention. This was a real disappointment for a show that otherwise managed to steer clear of certain politically dubious gags that have marred previous Med Revues.

However, the technical elements of the show were well-managed. Stage manager Pravind Easwaran and his crew ensured that scenes flowed into each other without a hitch. The show’s polish could have been improved with tighter lighting cues, though, with many sketches ending awkwardly as performers waited for the lights to slowly fade to black before exiting the stage. Thursday evening’s audience also received the good old Seymour Centre special: dud microphones and sound levels about as balanced as USyd Rants’ content on staff strikes. The onstage band often drowned out the singers, which was a shame, since rare moments of balance made their vocal talents very apparent. Although the production team could not control this for the most part, the issue still could have been identified during technical rehearsals and remedied by projecting lyrics above the stage, as Science Revue does.

The show concluded with an all-cast, contemporary version of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’, during which the cast took their bows. This was an unusual decision from choreographers Ella Karbanowicz and Tess Webster, but it paid off, making for an energetic and enjoyable conclusion to an already action-packed show. Accomplished and full of talent, Pandemic! at the Disco was a splendid entry in this year’s revue season despite its hitches, proving that the future of Med Revue is in safe hands.

Med Revue 2022 played at the Seymour Centre’s Everest Theatre on 29 and 30 September.