Phillip Street Theatre

Well hello there and good evening, here at Sydney’s Phillip Street Theatre. The audience has taken their seats, as we see. And the revue, Cross Section, is about to begin. The orchestra which is led by the musical director, Dot Mendoza, is playing the overture. And while we wait for the curtain to go up, let’s look around at this theatre which is so perfect for intimate revue.

It’s hard to believe that Phillip Street, which established this form of entertainment in Sydney, has had such a short history. In May 1954, producer, William Orr, opened the theatre with a revue called, Top of the Bill, the first of its kind in Sydney. And since then, there have been several revues. And all of them have been a great success. Around the Loop, which everybody surely remembers, established a record by running 14 months. And during all this time, the theatre’s been completed re-seated and re-decorated and has become one of our leading theatres.

Cross Section, some of which we’ll be seeing tonight, opened in August last year and has been playing to packed audiences since. The sets for the production were designed by Joe Shearer, the costumes by Frank Mitchell, the choreogrpahy by Ronnie Hay, and production by the theatre’s founder, William Orr. Well know let’s settle back in our seats and watch as the revue in the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney, Cross Section, is about to begin.

(ABC Telvision, Sydney, 6 January 1958)

Minnesota man finds amazing Australian theatre - Dr GT Vane and Erick Duckworth, Phillip Street, Theatre Manager, photographer J Tanner, 1960, National Archives of Australia, A1200, L35915

Minnesota man finds amazing Australian theatre – Dr GT Vane and Erick Duckworth, Phillip Street, Theatre Manager, photographer J Tanner, 1960, National Archives of Australia, A1200, L35915

In 1958 ABC Television screened an ‘on-the-spot’ telecast of William Orr’s revue Cross Section from the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney. William Orr began producing intimate revue for Sydney theatregoers in 1952. He opened at the Phillip Street Theatre two years later with Top of the Bill. Cross Section was the eighth revue at Phillip Street; its premise was life in Sydney’s cosmopolitan King’s Cross.

‘Intimate’ indicates a relatively small-scale production. Theatre historian John West explains: ‘no big scena, no lavish ballet, but a small group of performers working with slick, sophisticated material that had a strong sardonic sheen and presupposed as knowing appreciation of people, places and current events by metropolitan audiences’ (in Parsons 1995: 440).

The ABC telecast of a live performance of Cross Section was recorded on black and white film (dur: 28:24). It presents a selection of segments from the show. It features a mixed bill of songs and sketches from Ruth Cracknell (as a tram conductress), June Salter (as an alcoholic seductress), and others in the company, with dance routines from Yolanda and Antonio Rodrigues.

The telecast opens and closes with the company — which also included Peter Batey, Rhonny Gabriel, Delore Whiteman and a young Reg Livermore. The opening is a piece about the variety of life in the Kings Cross, and the telecast closes with an act about a ‘new’ kind of coffee called ‘cappuccino’.

Differences in social setting inflected the styles of variety entertainment in mid-twentieth century Australia. Genre terms like vaudeville, variety, revue and intimate revue articulated distinctions of social class and the transition of genres across forms of presentation and mediation distributed performers and spectators into new social alignments.

The telerecording of Cross Section emphasises fast-paced verbal wit and topical innuendo; the production is aiming at a cosmopolitan audience of urban sophisticates. By contrast, photographs from Sorlie’s travelling show emphasise skit-based comedy and sight acts for the rural-industrial working class and photographs Harry Wren’s musical revues like Many Happy Returns emphasise glamour and spectacle for the suburban middle-brow.

Yet looking across these productions, similar conventions of genre, design and dramaturgy are observed in each. They draw on a similar variety of acts: chorus, songs, dance, sketches, sight acts. And the sequencing in each follows a similar logic: chorus acts to begin and end the show, curtains open for acts with full-stage settings, closing the curtains for an act out on the apron, while the setting is changed for the next act, and so on.

The productions share a frontal presentation which determines how performers are assembled and arranged on stage, how they address the audience with body and voice, and how costumes, set and backdrops are designed to frame bodies for revelation, exposure and display. They also share an interest in travel and excursion.

Both Sorlie’s and Many Happy Returns were travelling shows on tour. Jeff Carter’s photographs of Sorlie’s engage the scenic sights and visual rhetoric of holiday tourism (camping, caravans and striped canvas), as does George Wallace Junior’s home movie of Many Happy Returns.

An interest in travel is also apparent in the Phillip Street’s intimate revue for a home-town audience. ‘Where can we go?’ sings a white American sailor and his African-American mate. An unlikely ‘pair of country boys from Idaho’, they’ve just arrived in Sydney for seven days’ leave ashore. Much like the three sailors in the Broadway musical, On the Town (1944), the performers arrive at Kings Cross as if from somewhere else.

Cross Section also included among its cast performers from elsewhere. Yolanda and Antonio Rodrigues are the energetic dynamo at the heart of ‘Caribbean Bazaar’, a dance segment that starts as a calypso tableau of colonial bounty and intensifies into an exotic conga of high energy possession.

Antonio left Brazil in the early 1950s and joined the Katherine Dunham troupe of African-American dancers. After the Dunham company toured Australia in 1956-57, Rodrigues stayed on in Australia, and settled in Melbourne, where he performed at the Lido in the 1960s, and established a dance school in the 1970s. I’d like to learn more about Yolanda.

References

  • Cross Section, telecast from Phillip Street Theatre, ABC Telvision, Sydney, 6 January 1958
  • Phillip Street Theatre collection at the National Library of Australia, includes theatre programs from Cross Section and other revues; finding aid at http://www.nla.gov.au/phillip-street-theatre
  • Minnesota man finds amazing Australian theatre – Dr GT Vane and Erick Duckworth, Phillip Street, Theatre Manager, photographer J Tanner, 1960, National Archives of Australia, A1200, L35915
  • Philip Parsons, ed with Victoria Chance, Companion to Theatre in Australia (Sydney: Currency Press, 1995)
  • Luciana Fraguas, Brazilians in Australia: A Snapshot of Brazilian Migration to Victoria (Melbourne: Abrisa, 2014), http://abrisa.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Brazilians_in_Australia_Book.pdf
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