12 September 2008

The Real Thring

The Real Thring
Hoy Polloy and Triple R
12 September 2008
Triple R Performance Space

If you believe the legend, Frank Thring was outrageous, offensive and remarkably talented. For once, the legend is very close to the truth. Hoy Polloy’s premiere of Barry Dickins’s The Real Thring explores this legend (and his urban legends) here in the city where Thring created himself.

If you were born after 1970, you may not know Frank Thring. I remember him from his appearances on Blankety Blanks – which are now on DVD or U-Tube. Also, check U-Tube for a rather interesting Thring interview on Tonight Live. By the 1980s Thring was someone we laughed at, but in the 1950s he was performing Shakespeare, Shaw and Brecht in the West End, with co-stars including Laurence Oliver and Vivien Leigh. Moving to Hollywood his film appearances included Pontius Pilate in Ben-Hur (“loved Bad, hated Her”) and Herod in King of Kings. Thring was a rising star when he returned to his home town of Melbourne. Here he regularly appeared on stage, but was best known for his many voiceovers (he was the Continental Soup voice), for being a regular villain on Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and film appearances that included Alvin Purple Rides Again and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. He also hit the height of Melbourne sainthood by being crowned King of Moomba in 1982.

It isn’t clear why Thring decided to return to Melbourne. Was it just big fish (and Frank was a very big fish) in a small pond? Back home Thring was an original Fitzroyal; at a time when a terrace near Brunswick St was crossing over from working class to bohemian. He was very close to the city theatres, the Collingwood brothels and the RRR radio studio – all of which he loved and frequented with equal passion.

In The Real Thring, Thring is neither alive nor dead, but thinks he may be dreaming that he’s alive. He admits he “made narcissm feel like anonymity” and wishes that he “hadn’t tried to be so fantastic”. This leaves a memory of a sad and terribly lonely man who hid behind sarcasm, outfits of camp black and bling, and a joy in shocking anyone. The Real Thring doesn’t really consider that this was simply Frank. Certainly, it was a fa├žade, but we all choose facades that are very close to our real selves.

Dickins’s script is quite remarkable. It is written with a dexterous rhythm and witty rhyme (St Pauls/balls, monster/imposter, severe/queer) that force you to listen. The wonderful words do get in the way of story though. It feels like there’s an assumption that we already know Thring’s story. On opening night, this was certainly the case, but I’m not sure how it will sit with less familiar audiences.

The Real Thring is also a loving tribute to the world of Melbourne theatre that was. Name-dropping Lawler, Hopgood and Carillo will always get a well-deserved snicker of recognition; however, there were so many names that are, sadly, no longer recognized. I want to know about Fred and Joan who lived in Kooyong Road.

Finally, it takes a fine performer to present such a difficult script. Michael F Cahill is such a performer. Filling a toga that big is a big ask. Cahill’s performance works, because he captures the essence of Thring, without trying to be Frank. He presents so much more than shock and bling, without ever making us feel sorry for him. Luckily he doesn’t force us to love or care about him too much either, as a sympathetic Thring would have been too far from the truth

As a celebration and exploration of a personality and a time that is slipping away from memory, The Real Thring is a glorious achievement. The script and this performance may not translate out of Melbourne (it may not even work on the South side of the Yarra), but the language and the character will ensure that it’s a script we see again some day.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

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