When Verity Hunt-Ballard was cast in Vivid White, Eddie Perfect’s new show – billed by Melbourne Theatre Company as a “pitch-black musical comedy” – she had no idea she and the rest of the cast would end up being the band as well.
Verity Hunt-Ballard and Brent Hill. Photograph © Justin Ridler
“It’s all systems go and all skill sets required,” she tells Limelight during through the rehearsal period. “A little while ago they decided that we would be the band – I was hired before this was the case – but they’ve got all these incredible actors who happen to play instruments as well. Eddie has written 14 songs for the piece and we’re the band, which is kind of like putting your mind in a hundred different places at once, in terms of [working on a] new text, scenes changing all the time, new music, music changing all the time, singing, moving – it’s kind of epic on so many levels, but it’s good and the cast is incredible.”
Hunt-Ballard is playing keys and tambourine. “Gillian Cosgriff is an incredible pianist so she plays keyboard one and I’m filling in with strings and pads,” she says. The rest of the cast – which includes Virginia Gay, Brent Hill, Keegan Joyce, Ben Mingay and Christina O’Neill – play guitar, bass and percussion and various other instruments.
Vivid White, which is being premiered by Melbourne Theatre Company, follows the success of Perfect’s first play The Beast, which MTC premiered in 2013. Where The Beast was a savage comedy about middle-class aspirations and pretensions, including ethical eating, Vivid White is “a play with songs” about Australia’s obsession with real estate.
It centres on two couples who have been known each other for years and would never let anything get in the way of their friendship – until they both want to buy the same house.
Director Dean Bryant says in the MTC press release: “Vivid White is the most theatrical new piece I’ve read in years – a roller coaster of comically dark scenes, interspersed with modern-day Weill-esque songs, and a climax unlike anything seen on MTC’s stage before. Eddie has one of the best gifts in the world, the ability to make you laugh hysterically at how ridiculous we are, and then leave you awake in the middle of the night. This new work screams off the page as a terrifyingly vivid look at what our world is becoming and it is thrilling to bring it to life.”
Hunt-Ballard, who came to prominence with her award-winning portrayal of Mary Poppins in Cameron Mackintosh’s production, has known Bryant for around 20 years. “His brother was in my year at WAAPA. When I first graduated, we did Virgins: A Musical Threesome and took it to New York, and that was where our creative relationship began,” she says.
In 2014, Hunt-Ballard starred in Bryant’s award-winning production of Sweet Charity, which opened the Hayes Theatre Co, where he has since directed acclaimed productions of Little Shop of Horrors and Assassins. He is an Associate Director at MTC where his recent credits include Born Yesterday.
“Dean is a master of casting. He’s very good at collecting a group of people that he knows are going to tell the story very well, but also collaborate in a very generous way to make it work,” says Hunt Ballard. “And Eddie has been coming in and out of the room with re-writes.”
Vivid White comes with a warning that it contains gun shots, loud and dynamic sound effects, haze and smoke effects, blood, violence and very coarse language. “Yes, it does come with Eddie Perfect warnings – which is quite a lengthy list!” says Hunt-Ballard with a laugh, adding that dog poo is also involved.
In an attempt to describe the production, she says: “It’s so Eddie Perfect. It’s such a clever satire. As we’ve workshopped and put it together, and thought that it was specifically about one issue, it has actually become – as in life – about several issues: commenting on the nation’s obsession with real estate on one level and the separation between home owners and renters, but then also a comment on climate change and the way we turn on our back on the big world issues because we get obsessed with our own situations, choosing colours for the walls and home renovations. Eddie has cleverly slipped that into a story about two couples who are friends who want to buy the same house.”
Describing Vivid White as “new Australian, cutting-edge work that is pushing the boundaries” Hunt-Ballard says she feels “very privileged to be part of it”.
Asked about the music, she says: “In Eddie’s way, it’s so diverse. It spans lots of different genres. Virginia Gay has a very Kurt Weill-like number which she does brilliantly but there are a lot of different styles of music that randomly support what’s going on. Audiences are in for such a dense, rich experience in terms of storytelling.”
The production also includes puppetry, and uses an ensemble of second year students from the Victorian College of the Arts. “I was thinking, ‘gosh if I could have done that in my second year at WAAPA what an incredible experience not just to sit in the rehearsal room of a professional state theatre company but also be part of the show’. They are puppeteering and doing all sorts of things,” says Hunt-Ballard.
“And then there’s the element of watching the actors going from a scene to playing in the band, switching from being a bit like a Greek chorus and then back into the scene. For me and for all of the actors it’s been such a treat in the way we get to collaborate on telling that story.”
Vivid White is now previewing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, Melbourne ahead of Wednesday’s official opening night, and plays until December 23