THREE GUARDS ON MANUS ISLAND
8-14 April 2019
Butterfly Club, Melbourne
By Sarah McInerney
Many shows at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival reach for tremendously lofty goals. Three Guards on Manus Island is a masterclass on how to aim for the stars and then actually reach them.
At its heart, this show is born from the structure of standard free-form sketch comedy within a framing device. Its secret lies in adapting this structure to the show’s context, and taking every part of it a step beyond the norm.
The premise is that three guards on Manus Island have formed an amateur theatre club and are putting on a show for us, the detainees. The framing device extends to the entire theatrical experience. Without spoiling details, the experience is immersive from the very first second when you step into the venue to the moment that you leave. The performers were very respectful and took care not to make any audience member feel unsafe, but they did not shy away from representing the harsh reality of the relationship between cruel guards and powerless prisoners. Even if you’re not usually a comedy person, any lover of performance will be engaged by this confronting, gritty, fearless theatre.
So how could anyone generate comedy in this bleak setting? It seems a near impossible feat, but the structure of sketches and guard scenes is carefully designed to raise and lower the energy with precision. Credit must go to director Jacob Sacher for the carefully curated show order and efficient world-building.
The three guards are played by three deft and well-balanced performers, each shining at different moments.
James Gordon treats us to total emotional commitment - whether he is an anguished piece of cheese, a threatened ABC presenter, or a smug scriptwriting guard, every detail of his body is fully in character, from the angle of his feet to the look in his eyes. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same person - the mark of a great actor.
Sandy Whittem is that delightful kind of artist who, blessed with tremendous talents, chooses to use them for comedy. From her angelic singing voice to her tremendously malleable face and accent, we never know what delight she’ll pull out next. It is difficult to tell when she is ad-libbing or following the script, such is the spontaneity of her voice and movement.
Josh Cake plays the stupid guard, but he is a stunningly intelligent performer. His extraordinary awareness of his audience is evident throughout the show, as he subtly adjusts timing of movements, lines, and pauses, for flawless set-ups and punchlines. Even his piano playing is perfectly delivered to draw us in and hit us with a twist at the ideal moment. He is an expert at setting up his co-stars’ big lines, and they shine brightest when he is on stage - there is a sense that he sets the pace and steadies the ship.
The writing is wonderful - the sketches are bold, absurd, and committed to their internal logic, resulting in hilarious and intellectually satisfying comedy. The transitions between sketches and framing device are surprising and inventive. The show treads a careful line with the taboo but never crosses it, whirling through devilishly silly ideas before whipping back to involve us in the dark reality of Manus Island. The parody of the trope of talking briefly about refugees at the end of comedy shows is treated with marvellous satire, while references to the tax contributions of all Australians to our refugee program hit hard at our consciences. The show is never preachy, but unashamedly real. You’ll feel the closing line deep in your guts for a long, long time.
Three Guards on Manus Island breaks new ground in the concept of what a sketch show can be. It’s hilarious. It’s immersive. It’s horrifying. It’s a unique audience experience and show structure. And it’s sincere.
Some shows consist of very, very funny comedy. Some are very, very powerful art. Three Guards on Manus Island is both.