Why Vodka? [by James Wenley]
Vodka, according to the pinnacle of human thought – Wikipedia – is “one of the world’s most popular liquors. It is composed primarily of water and ethanol with traces of impurities and flavorings. Vodka is made from fermented substances like grain.” Ho-Hum. According to the Did I believe it? Team, Vodka is drunk by alcoholics, was the original name of the Beatles, and Americans have invented a bacon flavoured version of Vodka. Yum Yum.
Silo Theatre have taken over the classy downtown bar 1885 Britomart for their first production of 2011 Did I Believe it? created by director Oliver Driver, writer Jodie Molloy and company. The premise is that for the last 42 years (the show is sponsored by 42 Below Vodka, don’t-you-know?) Did I Believe it? has been New Zealand’s top rating science edutainment show, or any sort of show for that matter. Each week they present all you could want to know on a particular topic… this week it is ‘Vodka’, and presented for the first time in front of a live studio audience. That’s us.
We are all packed in one of 1885’s rooms. I’m ushered towards one of the few seats available inside the space, for most of the audience its standing room only (elbow your way to the best view!). There is a small strip of a makeshift stage set up by a yellow unfinished wall, as garish as the retro-inspired costumes (Elizabeth Whiting FTW) that the characters proudly wear. Most of the audience has a glass of Vodka in hand; it’s immediately a more social experience than your normal theatre.
Did I Believe it? distills every single comic possibility inherent in Vodka, mixing together a series of sketches to create an entertaining, if not exactly strong cocktail. The show has its own theme music and voice over from that omnipresent TV voice-over guy, and nice video inserts. The broadcast is loosely structured with the sections on the who, what, why, where and how of Vodka. We learn something of its history – its origins in Poland and dominance in Russia (where it translates to little water, explaining why the country is constantly hammered). 42 Fun facts about Vodka that display before the show and during interval are very inventive.
The humour and gags have something of an anarchic Non-PC silliness , but they don’t always fly. When they have an edge to them they hit hard (Toni Potter’s housewife), but the show cruises too often with obvious and overly familiar gags.
The witty cast are a brilliant blend together, and though they very much are playing caricatures, manage to add a little bit more comic life and Vodka-infused pain underneath. Adam Gardiner is spot on as the (mostly) unflappable host Gavin Bachelor, who has hand mannerisms, stressed words, too-long dramatic pauses and unrelated segueing down expertly. Toni Potter yet again displays her wicked comic chops as the harried blonde sex-object Ms. Lilith Skies, and the commentary surrounding her character is the most pointed. Brett O’Gorman is the show’s scientist Dr Gwyn Cunny, and he comes out with some wonderfully absurd bullshit. Dean O’Gorman engages in a series of ever more ridiculous modelistic poses as Rick Ricky O’Shea (who puts the sexual into heterosexual, though you’d be forgiven if you think otherwise…) and was my favourite on the night. He is evidently something of a late addition, Dan Musgrove appeared in all their publicity and videos, but I gather Dan had to drop out to play the lead in the new Underbelly series. Priorities, Dan, priorities!
Did I Believe it? caused quite a controversy in the twitter-verse when a certain Robert Popper discovered that Silo’s publicity videos seemed very similar to a BBC television series he had created called Look Around You. Plagiarisers! Twitters tweeted, and there were calls to boycott the show. TheatreScenes interview with Shane Bosher started to get a lot of traffic from the UK, and some interesting comments were posted under it…
Silo issued a PR statement claiming that “Some believe that our theatre show is a television production. It’s not.”, which rather missed the point of the thing. Silo acknowledged the inspiration of Look Around You, but also listed a number of other media whose style is noticeable in the show including Monty Python, Curb your Enthusiasm, South Park and Anchorman. Oliver Driver was quoted: “Did I Believe It? is a parody of the genre of educational television programmes developed and presented in the late 1970s and 1980s. We are using the concept of a live transmission to satirise ALL of these programmes and any similarities to any of these programmes should be considered as an homage.” While not wishing to wade too far into the debate, it seems clear both Look Around You and Did I believe it? are similar in that they are both satirising the same format of educational TV show. Still, I could see why the creators and fans can be aggrieved. If anything, the controversy introduced me to a brilliant TV show that hadn’t been on my radar before. I recommended checking out looking at Look Around You for hours of YouTube fun.
But back to Did I Believe it?, and the other controversial aspect of the show – the association with 42 Below Vodka.
The question Did I Believe it? didn’t satisfactorily answer for me was Why Vodka?, or more specifically, why Vodka for this show? The obvious answer is that it because 42 Below Vodka are the sponsor. The potentially problematic relationship is addressed cleverly within the show, the characters mentioning other famous Vodka brands, and when Brett O’Gorman picks up a bottle of 42 Below Vodka from the shelf, money drops from underneath. The other characters give him a dubious look. Otherwise, references to 42 Below are less overt, and Driver and co resisted telling the cult 42 Below success story. Headline corporate sponsorship of theatre shows are nothing new, and they often don’t really have much to do with the actual content of the show, they just like to get their brands in front of punters noses. So why did Vodka have to be so thematically linked?
There are many interesting gags and info about the liquor, but it was a stretch to sustain it for the entire show and the content betrayed an interest in much more. ‘Regular features’ of the show, like Lilith’s very funny ‘feminine insert’ didn’t have much to do at all about Vodka, leaving the entire show concept a bit muddled. One rather enjoyable sequence involved the cast drinking different kinds of alcohol (that weren’t Vodka) and tracking their progress over a couple of hours at a party (Dean O’Gorman’s dark antics receiving a lawyer’s statement). In another sequence, the cast bottle their feelings, leading to some very inventive new drinks. It felt like the dominance of Vodka in the show limited, rather than focused their creativity. It felt there was more to explore about alcohol in general, especially considering New Zealanders difficult love affair with the bottle.
The show also suffered from a lack of a dramatic follow-through. The sketches were mostly enjoyable with their own mini-climaxes, but the show itself never really built up to anything, leaving the ending flat. There is some tension between characters (the O’Gorman’s one up-manship rather amusing, Lilith and Gavin’s fractured relationship less so) and Dean’s Rick Ricky O’Shea learns something about himself by the end, but that is where it begins and ends. For their first live studio audience broadcast, the stakes are surprisingly low. There were more dramatic possibilities to explore here in this type of live ‘anything could go wrong’ broadcast. I also thought that the lack of audience interaction, especially within this bar environment, was a glaring missed opportunity. Despite being cast as the studio audience, it was still very much a typical ‘us’ and ‘them’ theatre going experience.
Did I believe it? is clever, but not quite clever enough. There is much to laugh over though, and yes, it is improved with a glass of Vodka or two. But it’s a hangover free theatre experience, enjoyable in the moment, but doesn’t leave you with any lasting effects. Unless you go crazy on the 42… that’s a different story.
Silo Theatre’s Did I Believe it? plays at 1885 Britomart until 30th April.
More information at Silo Theatre’s Website.