When Reg Livermore first stepped onto stage at the Balmain Bijou in Betty Blokk-Buster Follies in 1975, he was already a star having played Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar and Berger in Hair. But with the ground-breaking Betty Blokk-Buster Follies and the other solo shows that followed, he became an Australian theatre legend.
These raunchy cabarets with their cavalcade of outrageous, eccentric characters, many of them struggling battlers, showed audiences challenging aspects of Australian society in ways they hadn’t encountered before. The charismatic, strikingly handsome Livermore was able to spin on a dime performance-wise, combining an anarchic energy and a dangerous theatrical daring with incredible poignancy.
Josh Quong Tart as Betty Blokk-Buster. Photograph © Kate Williams Photography
Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined stars Josh Quong Tart – who happens to have been born in the same year as Reg gave birth to Betty. Inspired by Livermore’s seminal 1975 production, but updated for the 21st century, the show follows a similar format, alternating outrageous character sketches with well-chosen songs. Some of the characters featured were originally performed by Livermore, others are new, but the new material, written by Mary Rachel Brown and Louis Nowra, captures the same kind of theatrical spirit.
Produced by Andrew Henry and Vanessa Wright for Red Line Productions, and presented in association with Sydney Festival, Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined is directed by Craig Ilott and staged in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent – which is the perfect setting. Brian Thomson has designed the set, which takes its cue from the original staging, with coloured light globes on a fake proscenium and around the stage. The costumes by Tim Chappel also strike exactly the right outré, sexy vibe.
The show begins, as the original Betty Blokk-Buster Follies did, with the appearance of Betty Blokk-Buster herself – a saucy, Germanic hausfrau in a mob cap, frilly apron and high heels with a feather duster, a white face, heavy eye make-up and a bare bottom (though Quong Tart’s is not quite as fabulously bare as Livermore’s, given the rather obvious jockstrap elastic).
“I am ‘ere to mek you ‘appy. It ees my pleasure and it ees my duty!” proclaims, indeed demands, Betty. The text here is very similar to the original though the sketch is extended. Quong Tart also revisits two other Livermore creations: Beryl, who is literally chained to the kitchen sink, and the elderly, chauvinistic Leonard who likes the old ways and has little time for the younger generation. Here he has no time for same-sex marriage either, even if his own son is getting wed.
Josh Quong Tart. Photograph © Kate Williams Photography
The new characters include Jane – clad in a flesh-coloured leotard and black leather, with a horse’s tail – who likes to complain, dob people in and close things down (like the Sydney Festival Village at Hyde Park North). We also meet a foreman who works for a company “with zero tolerance for harassment” but who sees no harm in any of the offensive phrases that employees have complained about, and is here to tell you why.
The show features an eclectic song list including John Grant’s That’s the Good News, Kate Bush’s Wow, Macey Grey’s Sexual Revolution, and Jamie Cullum’s Age of Anxiety among others. Johnny Run Away by Tones and I is particularly powerful, as is Randy Newman’s God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) which, with its dark critique of unquestioning faith, feels timely in Australia right now.
It wouldn’t be Betty Blokk-Buster without Billy Joel’s Captain Jack, which is also there, while Leo Sayer’s The Show Must Go On, which Livermore also famously sang, makes the perfect encore.
Quong Tart has a different energy to Livermore, performing with less of a mischievous charm and a darker dose of anger. He doesn’t find quite the same level of pathos in the characters as Livermore did, but he still does a terrific job. Under Ilott’s direction he pitches the material with the right amount of saucy savagery, and quickly draws you into his orbit.
Josh Quong Tart as Beryl, chained to her sink. Photograph @ Kate Williams Photography
Accompanied by a ferociously good band featuring Musical Director Andrew Worboys, Andy Davies, Tina Harris and Glenn Morehouse, and backing vocalists Kaylah Attard, Melissa Pringle and Elenoa Rokobaro, Quong Tart is in fine form vocally. He makes the songs his own and the show fires musically.
Livermore is one of a kind. I admit I went to see Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined with some trepidation, but I enjoyed it immensely. It is a homage to Livermore and a wonderful reminder of his massive impact on Australian theatre, while reinventing the material for audiences today.
Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined plays in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Hyde Park North as part of Sydney Festival until January 26