Imperial Panda Festival

10 Feb – 22 Feb 2009

Various locations

It’s 5.50pm when I spot the shuffling queue of hipsters, animating an otherwise nondescript wall in the backstreets of Surry Hills. “Mad Max?” I ask a boy with coke bottle glasses and a Bright Eyes t-shirt. He nods. Thanks to the Imperial Panda Festival’s no pre-sales policy, the queue for the last night of The Mad Max Remix is already 30 people deep, and there’s a growing sense of anxiousness among the hungry. Last night the intimate cinema remix sold out in ten minutes. Tonight, thanks almost exclusively to word-of-mouth in Sydney’s spiderweb of an underground arts scene, it would sell out in six.

When the artist-run punky warehouse space known as Lanfranchis Memorial Discotheque closed its doors in 2007, it didn’t just put a dozen or so residents out of a home, it put a stop to the performance nights such as Cabaret Sauvignon. Wild nights where the red wine flowed freely, and a rambunctious testing ground for new work from Sydney’s indie arts scene. But you can’t keep a good performance collective down, and the Imperial Panda Festival (IPF) was born the following year. Now in its second year, IPF just finished a successful two-week run, which featured a mix of new shows from collectives enjoying fringe fame, and one-off performance nights. In keeping with the underground ethos of the festival, co-curators Eddie Sharp and Rose Fisher sourced five warehouse or artist run spaces for the provocative and entertaining works the festival is becoming known for.

Kittenbone Bridge by Nick Coyle was first presented in 2007 as part of the Wharf2Loud’s PUSH program. Written at breakneck speed and rehearsed in just eight days resulted in Coyle’s sprawling surreal narrative to buckle under its own weight, and a reworking at IPF benefited the material immensely. Performed by Nick and his cohorts from the halcyon Cab Sav days, the suitably insane Charlie Garber and irrepressibly cheerful Claudia O’ Doherty (known collectively as Pig Island), Kittenbone Bridge took us deep into the bowels of a deserted island, showcasing Charlie’s adept hand at creating mad figures of authority, in this case a scientist. A thinking theatre fan’s comic treat: beautifully played yet never too clever for its own good. It was wonderful to see the enfant terrible Pig Island collective onstage together again.

Melbourne’s rough and ready Suitcase Royale were also back in Sin-city with another seamless show from their famed ‘junkyard theatre’ ethos. Unlike the unflappable Pig Islanders (who never break character once in the spotlight), the Royale lads seem to enjoy the slippages as much as the scripted when it comes to their raucous romps. Combining puppetry, miniature 2D sets, projections and the lads’ talents as ragtime blues musicians, The Ballad of Backbone Joe told a noisy noir tale of Backbone Joe, a wiry boxer who never loses (Glen Walton), his crooked manager who always wins (Miles O Neil), and the our wild-eyed narrator (Jof) who must ultimately try to defeat Joe. A self-contained collective who need no tech crew to let their bawdy, bone-crunching tale unfurl, the anarchic DIY philosophy has served the internationally renowned trio well, gracing the backyard alley venues of the world. We hope their rumoured Mighty Boosh-esque television series takes over the small screen soon…

Smaller in scale but no less entertaining Six Minute Soul Mate, new work from Sydney four-piece Brown Council; Kate Blackmore, Fran Barrett, Kelly Doley and Diana Smith. With only four shows accommodating roughly 20 punters apiece, tickets were as rare as a successful blind date, the theme explored in the intimate work. Three characters, one host, one speed dating night. Jammed onto small stools, warm champagne in hand, we the audience became an audience for three different misfits looking for love. As the Council members began cycling though the characters (each character being revisited by three different actors), the wheels began falling off their prepared speeches. The nuances in the forced flirtation and careful cheer was at times oddly heartbreaking; the bleak comic tragedy of the search for love. Surreal and special, Brown Council continue to impress with their po-mo explorations of gender.

Erotic Fan Fiction celebrated the most erotic day of the year, (Valentine’s), with a one-off night of salacious story-telling. The genre demands fiction written by fans of real or imagined popular figures getting down and dirty with each other. Usually consumed in private (thank you interweb), tonight writers’ filthy fantasies were on display for all to see. This year tales walked the line between erotic (Charlie Garber bought Justin Heazlewood’s autoerotic tale of supercar Kitt and Michael Knight Rider to life while yours truly performed some girl-on-girl action care of cartoon pin-ups, Betty and Veronica) and esoteric (festival curator Eddie Sharp’s piece about Robert Hughes failed come on to a contemporary art critic). Another sold-out show forced to turn 80 punters away, the EFF celebrated both the art of the spoken word and the delight in a little collective naughtiness.

Which brings us to the final full-length show of the festival, the afore-mentioned hot ticket, The Mad Max Remix. After performing Wonka!, a live cinema remix of childhood classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in no less than three seasons at Lanfranchis, the team behind the certified cult hit were back, and this time Mel G himself was in the spotlight. A cinema remix sees an original film recut to produce a different story, with an ensemble of actors and foley artists on hand to bring the newer, decidedly funnier film to life. Meet Max – the greatest dancer the world has ever seen. Will he make it to Madame Turner’s dancing school? The staggering labour of love that took two years for director/ performer Eddie Sharp to perfect was certainly the festival’s standout – the flawless hour-long show jammed a laugh a line in, with help from John Leary and IPF producer Zoe Coombs Marr. There is simply nothing else like this in the underground or the mainstream performance worlds. Utterly unique, surprising affectionate and hugely crowd-pleasing stuff that demands a second viewing.

With closing night performances at Cab Sav #7 from photographer Samuel Hodge, newcomers Team Mess, Brown Council, Post, Claudia O Doherty, Suitcase Royale and some German guy, hosted by classic Charlie Garber character Cammeray, the IPF players maintained their identities as kings and queens of the indie performance and theatre scene. Watch their space.

By Georgia Clark


About Georgia

I'm a young adult novelist with a weakness for hot nerds and cheese platters, not necessarily in that order. I am currently working on my third novel. I'm pretty excited about having just turned 30 because it means I can justify spending a lot of time thinking about homewares.
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