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Review: Séance Revue

Blood-curdling spectacles and strong performances were on offer at USyd's Science Revue this year.

A urinal cake enthusiast, the lunatic denizens of the Mosman community Facebook group, and Tracy Grimshaw: these were just some of the blood-curdling spectacles on offer at Séance Revue, the latest and spookiest incarnation of the University of Sydney Science Revue. Performed at the Seymour Centre’s York Theatre on Saturday 12 March, the show was directed by Maxim Adams and Emilia McGrath, produced by Mendy Atencio and Gilbert East, and consisted of no fewer than 71 sketches, songs, and musical interludes. Taking more than two years of development, this was a technically and artistically impressive production which largely succeeded in maintaining its energy, and the audience’s enthusiastic interest, for the duration of its two-hour-plus runtime.

The show’s spine-chilling opening scene establishes its theme. Under the evil red glare of the moon, five friends assemble in a graveyard in order to hold a séance. In their hands is an eldritch grimoire, out of which they read the terrifying incantation Caecilius est in horto. Summoned by this unholy utterance, a troupe of devils and demons gleefully dances forth from the portals of hell (i.e. the left and right stage doors) and kidnaps one of their number, Steph. To ensure all is not lost, the five friends must reunite and reverse the ritual by the break of day – but first, they must steel themselves for a journey through the surreal realm of student sketch comedy.

Many of the stand-out sketches involved singing and dancing. Their success with the audience was due, in no small part, to the virtuoso performance of the on-stage band, who were directed by Rafi Owen and Nick Cranch (and whose souls, if a certain audiovisual sketch is to be believed, are now the eternal property of Science Revue). One of the first musical numbers in the programme, ‘Diagnose my Friends’, features Skye McLeod and Marc Simonini playing psychology students who, as self-proclaimed ‘empaths’, are only too happy to grace those around them with their advanced insights: ‘So who needs therapy? / Just come on down to me! / Got it all covered in the first year of my psych degree.’ Another audience favourite was ‘Eat the Rich’, in which Harry Charlesworth and Taylor Fair, supported by a crowd of placard-wavers, offer a modest proposal for the equitable redistribution of societal calories: ‘Bring your forks and an axe, / Then we’ll see who pays their tax / When we’re cutting more than credit cards in half.’

The non-musical sketches were also largely well-received. James Wily was disturbingly convincing as a diner whose craving for ‘toilet lollies’ drives him into a state of unhinged desperation. Pearl Cardis moved the audience to stitches as a grown adult who attempts to purchase tickets to an R-rated film while pretending to be two children in a trenchcoat. A ‘naughty sketch’ was cut short when a surly bouncer, played by Artie Gallagher, picked out a hapless audience member and subjected her to an increasingly ludicrous line of interrogation: ‘How many sketches have you watched tonight?’

Other sketches ranged from the long and elaborate to the short and quizzical. One sketch dramatised the childhood horror of reaching the front of the supermarket checkout line without one’s parents, while another lampooned the neverending ‘closing down’ sales advertised by rug stores across Sydney. At other points, we saw a human theremin, an anthropomorphised bottle flip, and, in the immortal tradition of Shakespeare himself, a ‘live bear’ which was intermittently loosed upon the stage to wreak havoc. Audiovisual sketches punctuated these on-stage performances, mostly consisting of a series of increasingly concerning ‘messages from our sponsors’. These soon entered predictable hostage-video territory, but drew laughs from the audience nevertheless.

If the show had a weakness, it lay in its shorter skits. Some, like the bottle flip sketch, were almost too short: by the time you had put together what was happening, the lights had blacked out and the set pieces for the next sketch were already moving onto the stage. Some of the more chaotic skits were affected by sound mixing issues, with the dialogue threatening at times to devolve into incoherent bellowing. (This was much less of an issue during the musical numbers, which had surtitles.) However, these hiccups did little to upset the show’s rhythm, which, from a technical standpoint, was adroitly managed throughout by the audiovisual operators, stage managers, and backstage crew.

Even if we hadn’t missed such performance experiences for much of the past two years, Séance Revue would have been impressive. That such a strong show was delivered under such trying circumstances is a testament to the skill and hard work of all involved, and bodes well for the future of the Science Revue.