Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Castanet Club: History, Provenance and Influence

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Castanet Club: History, Provenance and Influence

Article excerpt

Their backyard clubland clowning was exquisite. They were beyond good. They were sunny, brazen, preposterous, daggy, suburban, smart pop-cultural archaeologists, and very funny! (Geoffrey Rush)1

This article focuses onThe Castanet Club,2 a performance troupe that began in Newcastle in 1982, and over the next nine years 'turned the Australian cabaret scene on its head'.3 It won awards at festivals in Adelaide and Edinburgh, had significant success in Melbourne, became the 'dag-darlings' of Sydney theatre, and the subject of a feature film, released in 1991.

The bulk of the article tells a relatively unadorned - and necessarily potted - narrative history, privileging what Nigel Rapport calls the 'constitutive discourses'4 of the artists involved, alongside the voices of critics of the day.5

A stark hermeneutic leap is then negotiated in the conclusion. Any sense of a discontinuity of focus may be seen as a shift from looking through a microscope to looking out over a broader horizon. It locates The Castanets in the Australian theatre of the 1970s and 1980s, and reflects on their profoundly influential role in the development of a 'backyard' theatre aesthetic, through their impact on the profoundly influential director, Neil Armfield.6 It examines an aspect of that aesthetic well-expressed in the emic term 'daggy-ness', and reveals The Castanets' own influences, constitutive of a geo-cultural fluidity borne of funding patterns and philosophies of the period.

Alison Richards has described the challenge of setting research in the milieu of one's own past as an attempt 'to play with the double vision that emerges from treating times one has lived through as history'.7This neatly expresses the aims of this exploration of what Clifford Geertz calls the 'partial sighting of receding experience'.8

I am a Novocastrian. I worked as an actor with core group members Stephen Abbott, Glenn Butcher and Glenn Osborne, and was a friend of theirs and of Penny Biggins, in the years before the formation of the band. I saw The Castanets perform numerous times between 1982 and 1991. Having cited my 'locatedness',91 leave it aside.

1982-1983: AMATEUR HOURS

In 1981, Freewheels Theatre-in-Education,!() under Brent McGregor's artistic direction, employed Abbott, Butcher, and recent NIDA graduate Angela Moore, as an ensemble, later adding a Novocastrian returning from three years training with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, Russell Cheek.

The Castanet Club grew around this nucleus, and out of the ashes of a 'surf bubblegum band',11 The Musical Flags, that Abbott led to considerable local success throughout 1980 and 1981, and with which he established'the lounge room aesthetic which became the cornerstone ... of the Castanet Club'.12

The Castanets played their first show in the basement of The Grand Hotel in Newcastle. A twelve-piece band was led by Abbott as 'Johnny Goodman, the master of sad'; Butcher was lead singer 'Lance Norton'; and Peter Mahoney was on guitar as 'Urman Erstwhile'. They played a set of retro hits, with comedy routines interspersed throughout, thus establishing 'the basic template for the cabaret show we would spend the next 7 or 8 years perfecting'.13 Among the sketches was Moore's debut as 'Shirley Purvis', a housewife fromYowie Bay.

Abbott then discovered an abandoned 1970s night-spot, the Classy Lady Disco, at the back of a Hunter Street hotel, and negotiated control of the room and the kitchen, allowing the publican to keep the proceeds of the bar.14 In March 1982,'The Castanet Club', painted and decorated by the band, opened with the ethos that 'a night at the club was like a party at someone's house - we just happen to be the most extroverted people there'.15 Control of the kitchen was significant because one of the features was the provision of inexpensive food, and lamingtons baked by members of the band. The venture was an immediate success.

Within a few weeks, the group added Moore on saxophone as 'Betty B-Plate' of the 'million megawatt smile',16 and Osborne as 'Carlo Thrillhammer'. …

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