Sydney’s theatre scene is trapped between the drive to conjure the magical, and the earthly shackles of some of the most art-hostile socioeconomic conditions in the west. As the price of space in our city increases and the big theatres get bigger, The Jetpack Collective have slipped their earthly shackles by grabbing three of their closest friends and rowing out to sea.
The purists will balk as they renew their STC subscriptions, maintaining that a boat isn’t a stage, and plays go on stages, but to them Jetpack says ‘cram it, fuddies,’ and probably gives them the finger. They flick their fringe from their eyes and yell ‘It’s the 21st century and we’ll put art wherever the heck we damn hell please’.
The sheer contempt they show for orthodoxy is inspiring. As if dictated by the spirit of The Young Ones, the tickets are priced at $10 for concessions, $15 for general admission and $30 for rich people. There are only three seats to every performance. The audience is rowed across a bay. The play is on the water. This happens three times a night for just shy of a fortnight. There is just no way that miserly old The Market will pay these clowns what they’re worth.
The art that they are putting on, in the sea, is a classic more familiar in the UK than on (off?) our own shores. In Pea Green Boat Stewart Lee, Britain’s best or worst stand-up, takes Edward Lear’s jaunty nursery rhyme The Owl and the Pussycat, and extrapolates the space between the couplets into a grim, alternate reality. The protagonist (the once-eponymous Owl), far from a guitar-strumming, cat-wedding mariner, is reduced to an anxious, proud wreck, steadily corrupted by the farcical tedium of every day at sea. The script doesn’t really reach beyond twisted whimsy, but it is a very enjoyable piece of twisted whimsy. It is done well.
This script debuted in the early 2000s at The Battersea Arts Centre, a venue dedicated to artistic experimentation for its own sake, and Lee has been very frank about the debt he owes the place and venues like it. It is in that spirit that he granted Fishwick the performance rights for free. This is a tremendous, stupid, rewarding experiment.
This production sweetly reinforces the original sentimentality of Lear’s rhyme with its novel staging, ultimately enhancing Lee’s perversions. The audience can’t leave the floating theatre (if I’ve been unclear, you’re literally on a boat) so as the owl trudges through their diary, the threat of press-ganged marine servitude feels vaguely real; a kind of caveat to the idyllic lapping of the sea at the pea green hull.
Hannah Cox as The Owl is by turns wistful, afraid and mad, in measures that are confronting without ever being threatening or making you feel claustrophobic. That closeness makes it hard to focus on much beyond her face, but her rubber brow is very engaging and nicely maps The Owl’s trajectory into madness.
As The Owl’s diary ends, the boat lands in a sandy harbour and you disembark. The freedom to move leaves you drunk on sunset sea-air like a pratty Byronic teen. It is so twee. I don’t care. How great is having fun?
You are delivered into the capable hands of Alexander Richmond, as The Turkey, whose sobering, southern lilt is a beautiful accessory to our final glimpse of The Owl: stoic, demented, and watching the horizon from a rock on the shore. It’s a stirring and dignified conclusion to a joyous, messy travelog.
As you’re never more than two feet away from Cox’s flailing, broken wings, you appreciate that part of The Owl’s nervous energy probably comes from having nowhere to hide. If either cast member slipped up, you’d know about it. But they don’t. It is surely a taxing production on its clearly capable performers—especially given they have to do it three times a night. But they do it very well.
The Turkey concludes and you’re taken back to the jetty by the producer. It’s one of the moments where the vast gears of the magical thing are exposed, but it is still fun. I didn’t properly appreciate the exertion of this incredible boutique team until I saw, as we drove, director Jim Fishwick paddling The Owl back across the bay in preparation for the second show. By the end of the run, that’s near 30 hours of paddling, because someone has to. There is so much love in this show. Try not to grin like an idiot.
The Jetpack Collective is quickly building a name for itself as a strange old man who runs a fantastical, hidden away toy shop down a pokey cobbled lane off the high street, and you’ve no idea how he makes rent, but he has a spinning bow-tie and a fabulous, curly smile. Pea Green Boat is an inspired pick from his highest, dustiest and most exciting shelf, and all the kids are rightly going cooooooooool.
For its staggering inefficiency, you are unlikely to ever see another show like this. And what a shame. Pea Green Boat is a very precious gift for the child in all adults—or, at least, the hundred or so lucky enough to be taken out to sea.
Pea Green Boat launches from a jetty in Lilyfield at 7, 8 and 9pm on most evenings, until the 24th of November. Tickets, even for the rich, can be bought here. To find out more about Jetpack Collective, you can find them on Facebook.