In 2011, I received an out-of-the-blue email from a friend, the front-of-house manager of one of Sydney’s major theatre companies. “I’m picking you up at 9pm this Thursday,” her message read. “Wear something warm. No questions please.”
Clearly it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. She rocked up that Thursday as promised, beckoned me into her car and – she’d neglected to mention this part of the arrangement earlier – blindfolded me.
No, this isn’t that kind of story.
After about half an hour of driving and chatting as if a friendly kidnapping was a perfectly normal way to spend a weeknight, she pulled up at the mystery location. I was helped out of the car and guided down a concrete path.
When the blindfold was finally whisked away, I was in a suburban backyard overlooking the city. There was a table in the middle of the backyard laid out for dinner.
More confused than ever I took my seat next to a handsomely dressed woman with a drawn-on moustache who introduced herself as ‘Bob’. There was a lady in fishnets named Kiki and a man sporting a tight red dress and blonde wig, who called himself Lady Godiva, spoke like a character out of a Tennessee Williams play and asked me if I thought he was sexy.
A pantomime horse sat opposite.
I realised, eventually, that what I was witnessing was a preview performance of sorts. For whatever reason I’d been picked to be the one-man test audience of a development exercise for a new show, called Cut Snake.
For the next hour, Bob, Kiki and Lady Godiva (actors Julia Billington, Catherine Davies and Kevin Kiernan-Molloy, whom I’d never met) spun me the story of their intertwining lives – a story of love, destiny, mountain climbing, time travel and sex change operations – through music, sock-puppetry, burlesque, acrobatic dancing and cuisine (dinner was snake, looking rather like bangers and mash with too-much gravy). It was extremely ridiculous, extremely entertaining and, I’m pretty sure, keeping the neighbours up.
If it seems strange that a team of theatre-makers would put on a show mainly for the amusement and bemusement of one arts journo, well, it is, and was. But it’s the sort of harebrained scheme that gives you an idea of the creative energy and inventiveness of director Paige Rattray. She was the one stuck in the sweaty horse costume, by the way, making notes of my reactions throughout the show.
With her theatre company Arthur, Rattray has kept up a relentless forward momentum. Since 2011, she’s sold out seasons of Cut Snake in Sydney, Melbourne and overseas, directed two great new Australian plays (The Sea Project and Dirtyland) and, along the way, tailor-made a boutique dinner show especially for an Italian restaurant in Woolloomooloo. Just in the past six months, she has directed aspiring thesps on either end of the acting school spectrum: NIDA’s graduating performers, in a gruesomely funny production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and a series of monologues by young playwrights at the Australian Theatre for Young People.
At the time of writing, Rattray informs me, she and Arthur are making plans to hit the road with a tent for pop-up performances around the country.
Before that, though, Cut Snake is coming back to Sydney to play in front of, well, regular-sized audiences. Defying the ordinary yet again, though, Rattray and Arthur are currently in the process of sourcing bed sheets, transforming the Bondi Pavilion into the world’s largest cubby house.
If the show has retained even a smidgen of the goofiness and imagination that was on display during my private showing, it’s going to be riotous, madcap fun. And well worth abducting someone to bring along.
Cut Snake, Theatre Works, Feb 25-Mar 9.
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