Beck’s Bar, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne
October 17, 2008, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival
Wendy Houstoun is a unique artist. Not only is she able to perform text and movement with equal skill, she’s also a talented comedian.
In this solo piece she deftly combines all three elements, playing a barmaid in a pub, or in this case, a corner of the Meat Market which has been set up as a tacky bar. Partaking of as much alcohol as she serves, our barmaid winds up in a state of inebriation which inevitably leads to wonky speeches and turns on the dance floor. The humour is both physical and verbal as she sends herself up, tells bad jokes and gets tangled in the streamers, though she never crosses into slapstick.
The strength of the work lies in the undercurrent of sadness and desperation that runs throughout. Both on a personal and a broader social level, Houstoun demonstrates without preaching the pitfalls of alcohol as a social lubricant and solution to life’s problems. It’s like being the designated driver and watching your friends make fools of themselves, though Houstoun is a more interesting drunk than most.
With good direction and a clever script, her wit seems to grow sharper while her sentences grow ever more incoherent. Whether in a series of depressing toasts, exaggeratingly clichéd bar talk or a repetitive sequence of falling movements accompanied by equally repetitive conversation, she represents all too well why the Government has become so concerned about our binge drinking culture.
Houstoun makes direct eye contact and interacts with the audience as she moves around the very close space, a similar and equally effective approach to that of her other festival show, Desert Island Dances. Both of these insightful, innovative works speak clearly to audiences while remaining sophisticated and meaningful, making art accessible even for the most inexperienced festival-goer.
Originally published in The Age newspaper. NB the image above is from an earlier incarnation of this production. In the version I saw, Houstoun's costume was totally different, and she didn't wear the red wig.