Happy Duck, an Alcoholic Librarian and Tram Pies – An Existential Evening with Ben Pobjie, Sarah Kendall and Laura Davis at MICF

My evening at MICF began with me arriving at the Melbourne Town Hall before 6.  I realised when I looked at what I had already booked that I had an evening of existential angst, surreal imagery and storytelling ahead of me.  I had some extra time, though, and could add to my evening. Maybe more existentialism?

No.

I actually read the flyers that were proffered to me by various friendly spruikers. I had a read of what they had to offer, had a look at some reviews and they seemed to offer “a laid back Aussie look at life” or “hilarious songs where the two comics outdo each other with crowd interactions” and some such. None of that grabbed me at all. So I just had some dinner and went to Fitzroy to see my first show for the evening.

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Show 1 – Ben Pobjie – Smackweasel

Have you ever driven around in one of those housing estates built in the 1990s?  The ones with endless bendy roads, no direct roads to anywhere cul-de-sacs everywhere.  I have, many times.  Whenever I’m in an unfamiliar one, I find myself constantly doing uturns and feeling hopelessly lost.

That’s what being an audience member in a Ben Pobjie show is like. This is why I really enjoy his shows, because I like being lost down through a network of non sequiturs, existential questions wrapped around existence and irrelevant pop culture references.  It is, however, more than that.  So much more.

Or maybe it really was just a man talking through sock puppets.

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The show is based around the idea that the protagonist became famous due to a wildly successful children’s show that involved socks and a really nasty unicorn sock (that unicorn really is horrible). It is, however, not just that. The show is more an exploration of what it could be if someone took a group of words, cliches, narrative hooks and drama forms and threw them down the stairs, picked them up and attempted to put them back together with some semblance of a linear story spine.

For all that (and that’s what I like about Pobjie’s work), it’s still clearly a well crafted show with Pobjie playing the storyteller role with a style that is becoming more like sardonic panache with each passing year.  It was a preview, so there was still the element of a bridled horse to the show.  At its best and unbridled, the words and concepts flowed with passion.  There will be people who go to this show who will be puzzled by where the show takes them, but if you like to be taken down those avenues, it’s a good way to spend an hour. Plus, you could step a couple of doors up the road and have an N2 icecream afterwards.

Show 2 – Sarah Kendall – A Day in October

Sarah Kendall’s show continued the storytelling theme, though it was a more traditional linear story with amusing tangents and audience interaction.  Plus, she has the advantage for me of being a red head.  Like her, I have spent many days bathed in sunscreen, standing in the shade.  Kendall draws strongly from her background as someone from Newcastle who didn’t quite fit into the milieu and took the position of observer – a gifted one who is able to give the story flesh and life.

The show, I believe, is sold very short on the MICF website. It’s considerably better and has more depth than “it was a seriously bad pool party”.  It’s a show that as many people as possible should see, as there’s great humour, but also a pathos to the show that is heart rending.  It provides at its core the story of a bullied child that could be someone in any number of Australian high schools, what leads to the bullying as well as the result of the bullying.    I’m not entirely sure at the end whether the story Kendall tells is actually based on real life and whether George Peach is real – but the story is so well done that it doesn’t matter either way (though, I really want to know…!)

This is not to say, however, that the show is overwhelmingly sad or earnest. It’s seriously funny and Kendall is a polished, engaging performer who knows how to take an audience with her.  She is the type of Australian comedian I really like – able to see the Australian mythos, able to encapsulate it and give it voice, but also not become an uncritical voice of it.

Show 3 – Laura Davis – Ghost Machine

The existential theme of the evening came back in a white room featuring a white ghost. Of the sheet with eye holes variety.  That’s the gimmick to start the show and I think it works well, because it allows Davis to warm up from behind the eye holes.  She’s an incredibly gifted observer of the world, from a perspective that is difficult to describe.  (If I was a critic from a newspaper, I’d say she’s “wacky” or “quirky” or whatever lazy words they would roll in their columns). She just projects a pure, innocent energy, wondering what the world is actually about and not really getting any answers.   That energy provides an audience interaction that is also memorable – the upfront nature of her existentialist questioning of the audience is one of the best parts.

The highlights from the show for me were those moments where Davis would tell stories of her existence – such as the stories involving her, pies and trams or of her life as a fork sorter; and those times towards the end where she would stand on a chair, put her hands on the ceiling and openly contemplate things that a number of us only ever contemplate at 2.35 in the morning.  There was something deeply mesmeric about those moments, where those of us who do have moments of self loathing / darkness / contemplation were taken to those places whilst also at a show.

There are times in life when it’s been tough to be a red headed, sensitive individual with a love of the surreal who frequently contemplates his purpose in life.  Last night was a chance for me to be in rooms where comedians had been in the same mental spaces in which I have existed. But ones who provided voice, shape and energy to life in those spaces far better than I could ever hope or want to achieve.

Aside from this personally self-indulgent response, it was also a chance to see how these excellent comedians can connect their lives, their experiences to audiences.   Kendall is clearly the most polished and has the audience to match – the show’s intimacy had, I think, the right sized room for it.  Pobjie is still starting in this game and he will learn the art of being comfortable with the idea that his audience is connecting with the material on different levels, even if that’s not necessarily happening with every single thing he does.  Davis’ audience engagement is sublime, because she is genuinely curious about what they think about her ideas and questions and her reference to audience members through the show isn’t schtick, it’s natural.

If you can’t get into the shows done by the people you know, or if you’ve seen them and want to see a wider variety, you really can’t go wrong with this night of existentialism and storytelling.  Or maybe you could.  I’m not you or you’re not me.

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