I haven’t been to a live music performance since I sang in the shower this morning. (It was terrible, 1 star). Before Drummer Queens, I certainly hadn’t been to a live music experience of such vein-throbbing, entertainment-packing stagecraft for a good old while. This show will leave you shook. And perhaps a little dazed.
Niki Johnson, Georgia Anderson, Salina Myat, Peta Anderson and Lisa Purmodh in Drummer Queens. Photograph © David Hooley
There are eight in the royal all-Aussie sisterhood, and all of them are born of the sacred beat. Their stomping (and pounding, and thumping) ground is the Sydney Lyric Theatre for the world premiere of the show, which was created and composed by Joe Accaria; a glamorous, golden carapace of a theatre, right next to another Crown – this one, the casino, now lying heavy on James Packer’s head. Towering bridges reminiscent of the inside of a drum are the moving sculptures that enshrine the show. Built of gold-burnished, glittering scaffolding that gives off both steampunk and art deco vibes, it forms an impressive backdrop that the percussionists will sometimes scale, sometimes pull apart, and often thwack.
Clad in steampunk yellow jumpsuits (and later, smart drummer uniforms), each of the Queens has their own attitude and talent, which Creative Director Nigel Turner-Carroll leverages to blend in other entertainment forms. There’s the peppy Georgia Anderson, who tumbles and clowns. Niki Johnson is a xylophone pro. Peta Anderson got the biggest hand with her insane tap-dancing – matching rapid-fire clops while surrounded by toms. Salina Myat, who is often elevated on one of the two drum-set daises on either side, is just cool.
The variety sometimes works, and it’s grand to see the women stepping back and admiring a sister going solo. Yet other times, the admixture creates a contradiction in group identity and tone. Where some are playing it fierce, the goofballing and antics puncture their style, creating a disunity amongst the queens.
The comedy is hit and miss, but there are playful moments which pay off and fun to be had in creative asides. On their insatiable quest for rhythm, even a toothbrush has potential, and there’s some creative shadow puppetry on a huge expanse of stretched drumskin.
A scene from Drummer Queens. Photograph © David Hooley
What gives the show its spectacular quality is hands down Richard Neville’s lighting. A ricocheting synaesthetic masterpiece of mind-boggling design, it puts the smoke machine in overdrive, plays with silhouettes and layered spectra, making dynamite the beats and orchestrating the mood. Sydney Vivid is months away, but this feels like a teaser.
While the invigoration risks becoming exhaustion at a critical moment in the 90-minute runtime, there are well-timed ebbs to recover from the complex and noisy cascade. After a futuristic steampunk light show of movement-activated drumsticks and electronica noise, for instance, we move onto a more organic and less intense performance where the musicians use their bodies as instruments.
Some performers clearly channel the groove more than others, which – perhaps unintentionally – created a bit of a hierarchy in this all-female music cult. Stef Furnari is a total badass, and sets a level of swagger that you can’t help but wish the others would step up to and match. While they’re all mad drummers, they’re not all natural performers, and don’t always quite pull off the choreography’s stops. Some of the Queens seem aware of this too, and seem to shrink a little because of it.
Am I justified in feeling put out when I found that five out of six of the Drummer Queens creative team are men? I think I’m right in being annoyed that on the dedicated Drummer Queens website, the names of the performers are nowhere to be found (except for Peta Anderson, who choreographed, and so gets a mention on the About page). Let’s pay tribute to the rest: Georgia Anderson, Stef Furnari, Niki Johnson, Lisa Purmodh, Claudia Wherry, Ned Wu and swing performer Sasha Lian’s Diaz. If they, as the marketing copy declares, are ‘ready to rule’, then where is their royal due? Where’s the worship from within? Some basic respect? (I’m a sometimes marketer, and try to be an all-time feminist, so these things bug me.)
It occurred to me how strange it must be for the performers up there: to be throwing off so much energy, and for it all to be sucked into the dark and motionless void that was the masked and seated audience. Aside from a few isolated bobs in the sea of heads, and the rounds of applause in-between acts, we were still. Captivated, but creepy. If we had been standing, would we have given more back through our bodies? Could we have created a cycle of energy, fed those on-stage greater confidence, sparked amongst us all more joy? Or perhaps this is the audience that the show was made for. The one that favours live music without the untamed crowd.
Drummer Queens is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, and suitable for families too. Loud and large-scale, certainly showy, it’s in Sydney for just five nights before moving south to Melbourne and rebounding up to Brisbane.
Drummer Queens plays at the Sydney Lyric Theatre until 13 February; Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, 27 April – 8 May; Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, 11 – 16 May