On November 11, 1975, the Governor General sacked Australia’s elected Prime Minister.
Protests were held outside Parliament House, Labor’s True Believers were told to “maintain the rage”. The departing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam famously said “Well may we say God Save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor General”.
Whether you grew up in this time or learned about it through its place as an important part of Australia’s history, most people have background knowledge of what we now refer to as “The Dismissal”.
It was a serious time, deep rifts were caused through the way the dismissal was handled. PM Malcolm Fraser, appointed the new Prime Minister by the Governor General Sir John Kerr after Whitlam was deposed was much hated for a long time for the way he was given government.
Saying this, The Dismissal may seem an unlikely subject for a musical but, rest assured, the treatment works.
The Dismissal was conceived by Jay James-Moody, and written by Blake Erickson, who has also been responsible for Cry Baby and High Fidelity produced for the Hayes Theatre. One of the reasons for the show was to find some sympathy – or at least empathy – for the Governor General, who has been vilified through history. In this show, Kerr is played by Marney McQueen – the idea being that a woman would elicit a more sympathetic reaction. For my partner who lived through the events, it worked, and while he struggled with the idea of having a woman in the role, he did feel a deeper level of appreciation for the GG’s situation. On the other hand, I felt no empathy but equally no issue with a woman playing the GG.
Laura Murphy is responsible for the words and lyrics and they are fresh and clever and elicited lots of laughs. Rehearsals began for this new musical just three weeks before the show – and the current run was programmed for a single week, with many rewrites of music and scripts being done in rehearsal. Hopefully, the rapturous reaction of the audience will ensure that it will be granted a regional run similar to the Wharf Review and more recently, The Gospel According to Paul.
The cast is magnificent. It’s difficult to name standouts but Matthew Whittet as Norman Gunston is mesmerising. Is he actually a reincarnation of the great man – he has the walk, talk, and mannerisms and is able to give context through the musical like a Shakespearean fool.
Bishanyia Vincenti is as wonderful as when I fell in love with her in her recent role in Spamalot. In The Dismissal, her comedic talent is clear and she has many song opportunities as different characters – including Margaret Whitlam and Queen Elizabeth – to show off her very fine voice. Also from Spamalot is Blake Appelqvist, whose face alone elicits laughs; his moves and his comic timing all make him a rising star in musical comedy – and these skills are just in addition to his leading man good looks. He manages to hide the looks as Sir Garfield Barwick, but they are as clear as the Private School Boy he so deftly portrayed.
Justin Smith is one of Australia’s hardest working jobbing actors. His face pops up everywhere including as PM Whitlam in The Dismissal.
Stars of the real Dismissal, Whitlam, Fraser, Jim Cairns, Junie Morosi, Rex Connor, John Kerr and his wife “Fancy Nancy” are bright characters in the musical, and a special guest on the night I was in the audience was the still very gorgeous Junie Morosi, who said she felt she had been treated better than some of her contemporaries. For me, it is about time a smart woman was given a good rap.
The Liberal party, led by Andrew Cutcliffe as Malcolm Fraser, is parodied well with their theme song “Private School Boys” which is a recurring number.
Each member of the cast outside Norman Gunston and Gough Whitlam holds multiple roles which they ease in and out of seamlessly.
It is wonderful to see the talented cast and be reminded of the high level of talent we produce in Australia. The musical side of the production is led by Andrew Worboys and Steven Kreamer and features the talented Tina Harris. All look like they are enjoying the score.
The performance begins with Norman Gunston on the steps of Parliament House where a crowd of protesters have gathered. It then travels back to the 1972 election, followed by the 1975 election, and the difficulties of the Senate refusing to pass the Budget after the press reveals that a shady deal has been made with a disreputable Pakistani banker called Tirath Khemlani. Another distraction to the government is the rumoured affair between Treasurer Jim Cairns and staffer Junie Morosi. The media barons – Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax – are all against Whitlam and they take whatever means they had to damage his party (23 years in the wilderness had not been long enough!). Eventually, the Governor General feels he has to break the deadlock in Parliament, which he does by alerting the Queen he would be sacking the Prime Minister and appointing the leader of the opposition. Videos of 70s news footage and ads add atmosphere to the production.
More than 40 years after the real dismissal, the theme of the musical is pertinent today as we continue to elect a government that promises to change nothing – to maintain the status quo and continue to reward those with the most. Of course, the Liberal party is given the bum rap in this tale and, as they say, it’s to be expected with their attitudes to arts funding.
Maintain the rage.