At Brisbane’s grandiosely-named ‘World Theatre Festival’ recently, I went to see The Suitcase Royale’s Ballad of Backbone Joe. It sounded perfect from the promotional blurb: an Aussie narrative set in an 1890s abattoir-cum-boxing emporium, full of rag-n-bone music and melodramatic intrigue.
Given that I am currently on the trail of Larry Foley, the legendary Australian bare-knuckle fighter-turned-boxer, said to have fought as a larrikin in the Rocks in the 1870s, I could hardly believe my luck. And what more promising name for a three-piece with theatrical leanings than The Suitcase Royale?
Action-shot from The Suitcase Royale’s site
The music, let me say, is really great – a cross between Nick Cave’s The Murder Ballads and the gloriously ratbaggish Melbourne band, Waiting for Guinness. I loved the Royale trio’s seedy-cheeky air and the lead’s gravelly voice, redolent of old suits and dark nights and spilled beer. I would certainly go to see them play a gig, and will sometime, if I get the chance. Sadly, however, one cannot say the same thing about the theatrical merits of The Ballad of Backbone Joe.
It was egregiously false advertising, for a start, to say that this offering is ‘set in the 1890s’ or (as the band’s website puts it) ‘the roaring carnival days of pre-war Australia’. The Ballad in fact possesses not an ounce of actual historical references, let alone verisimilitude. It revels in its historical shonkiness, in fact, making much of its wild anachronisms. One passes from a character peeking through plastic venetian blinds to another singing a pastiche of an early jazz song, from a fellow dialling on a 1970s telephone to the projection of grainy black-and-white photographs of boxers back in an indeterminate day. Worse than this so far as I was concerned, however, was the fact that the plot and acting was just as full of wild disjunctions – the stuff of an undergraduate arts revue.
A word of advice, boys: if you are going to advertise a piece on the basis of its historicity, then do some actual historical research. (God knows it’s not very hard via Wikipedia and Google Books these days). Oh, and The Ballad of Backbone Joe needs some serious script development – otherwise, stick to the fab. gravelly shtick with the songs.