Bad to Worse: That Awkward Moment (Joel O’Brien), The Gospel According to Matthew (Matthew Semple). Cabaret Double Bill, produced in conjunction with Hayward Street Studios and Heaven of Invention, at Hayward Street Studios, 28th and 29th April 2017 (7:30pm)
A cabaret double bill is always going to be good value. You get to see two shows for the price of one (and if you don’t like one show, then another one is along in just a moment). The Bad to Worse combination of That Awkward Moment (Joel O’Brien) and The Gospel According to Matthew (Matthew Semple) was advertised as an “evening of outrageous comedy and musical theatre.” It delivered on both promises.
The two shows have some interesting similarities: both centre on musical theatre actors who perform their own material in a stand-up comedy/cabaret performance that engages directly with their audience. Often self-deprecating and closely observed—for O’Brien, with a focus on social interactions, and for Semple on everything from immigration policy (“Thanks Peter”) to the Bible—the shows intersperse moments of reflection and personal insight with familiar and original tunes sung by two strong vocalists. But the similarities end there, as the two performers have very different styles of comedy.
I came away from seeing That Awkward Moment feeling I had just seen a stunning audition from a performer who reminded me of Jim Carey. And even though Carey is not a personal favorite, that reference is meant as a compliment. O’Brien captivates his audience. Energetic slapstick moves are complemented with a closely-observed run through a number of awkward and uncomfortable situations: from public speaking competitions and techniques on meeting people at parties (bring a talkative friend), through to dealing with a surly barista. Oh, and then there was the extended set on how to let a couple know you are awake while they are having sex next to you…. The gauche O’Brien progresses through the use of techniques—including turning anger and annoyance into a rap—to demonstrate that awkwardness can be a blessing in disguise.
O’Brien’s show isn’t strictly a one-man performance. There is a great use of supporting material (from hand-luggage to a telephone), the audience interaction is superb (particularly with the telephone, but also with the rap resolution of the day’s more awkward moments), and then there is the rubber chicken… Redmond Lopez is a brilliant accompanist, and the show is another great piece of direction from the versatile and talented Gabriella Flowers.
The Double Bill is advertised with a warning about coarse language and adult themes. In The Gospel According to Matthew, Semple’s irreverent set pushes the boundaries with his acerbic wit and commentary on freedom of speech, politics, sex and religion. There are moments of attempted innocence—“did I really say that”—and sly asides when the audience ‘catches up’ with what has just been said. His views may not be to every taste, but Semple forces his audience to think, and to consider their own position on some of the more important issues in life. Emphasising the importance of forming your own views (and of finding your own way), life tips range from the advice that a movie is not a good first date choice, to the essential “always be true to yourself.”
Semple is a versatile performer, successful writer, great singer, and able pianist who has been compared to Tim Minchin on more than one occasion. I was reminded more of the young Ben Elton. This show has already had success in Melbourne, and has won awards for Best Director and Best Original Score (Short + Sweet 2016). So congratulations also go to Simon Mason (Director).
I felt that the worst part of the evening (and this is a double bill titled Bad to Worse, so I should consider what the worst might be) was that the venue isn't ideal. Even in the second row, the pre-recorded audio used in The Gospel According to Matthew was often difficult to hear, and occasionally distorted, so it was a distraction from some of the earlier parts of the second half. Appreciating that venues can be hard to find in Brisbane (and are often expensive), it’s a pity that both performers were not at one of the comedy club venues around town. It would be interesting to see both shows in a different venue—and perhaps with longer runs, so that the material will be even more familiar (allowing both Semple and O’Brien to adopt more natural, conversational styles).
Semple ended the evening with "just go": a message to the audience that they were free to leave, but also perhaps what he hoped we’d say to our friends and colleagues about the show. Comedy that pushes the boundaries is not to everyone’s taste. But if it’s for you, then try The Gospel According to Matthew. And if you want to watch a rising comedy actor then you must look out for anything Joel O’Brien is involved in (including the fast funny and fluid That Awkward Moment).
Bad to Worse: That Awkward Moment, and The Gospel According to Matthew, two-night run only (28th and 29th April 2017, 7:30). Tickets $25-$30. 120 minutes, including one interval. Warning: Contains strong language and adult content
The reviewer attended the Brisbane opening night of Bad to Worse (Double Bill: That Awkward Moment, and The Gospel According to Matthew) on Friday 28 April, 2017 (7:30pm).