‘Someone said we were the sickest pair of wimps they’d ever seen,’ says Steve Kearney of Los Trios Ringbarkus on British reaction to the zany duo who carried off the ultra-prestigious Perrier ‘Pick of the Fringe’ award at last year’s Edinburgh Festival (1983). ‘I think they expected a couple of sunbronzed Aussie comedians to come out telling dingo jokes. They were … stunned.’
Relaxing around their hotel rooftop pool during their recent Sydney season, Kearney and partner Neill Gladwin indeed seem an unlikely pair to be dragging Australian new wave comedy/alternative cabaret onto the international scene. There’s nothing distinctively Australian about their act, a superbly timed, part-improvised tour de farce of mime, slapstick, confrontation and music; which is perhaps why their only crack at the mainstream, in these increasingly jingoistic times, has come through the eternal back door of overseas success.
‘You hear all that stuff about overseas success,’ says Gladwin, ‘ but to experience it is really crazy. Like doing that satellite cross to The Don Lane Show last year …’ His voice trails off in remembered amazement.
Kearney and Gladwin met when they were both drama students at college in Melbourne. They started promoting friends’ plays at college during lunchtimes, Gladwin on accordion and Kearney on drums with a bit of performance art thrown in. Kearney remembers their first paying performance with some amusement. ‘We played backing music at Monash Uni to stocky drunk Latrobe Uni students trying to pull each other across a moat.’ (‘It was a tug of war,’ explains Gladwin helpfully.) Perhaps prophetically, one of the other early performances by the two was supporting Men At Work at Melbourne’s Marijuana House on New Year’s Eve 1980.
‘We played backing music at Monash Uni to stocky drunk Latrobe Uni students trying to pull each other across a moat.’ (‘It was a tug of war,’ explains Gladwin helpfully.)
Like Austen Tayshus after them, Los Trios have performed at their share of rock music venues in the four years they have been together, most notably as special guests on a national tour by the Reels a few years back. But without Melbourne’s sympathetic network of small theatre restaurants they would probably never have got off the drawing board.
‘We went into the cabaret thing with the Whittle Family,’ recalls Kearney. ‘It was a real family thing. There was this thing called Collabaret where acts would get up all night and it was a real novel thing.’
‘I don’t think we could have come up in Sydney,’ adds Gladwin. ‘At the time it was all that transvestite, drag show, Cabaret Conspiracy orientation up here. And even now, we get the impression Sydney people just want a good song and dance. It’s probably the leagues club tradition or something, but there’s a part of the show where we do a little send up of all that and the audience relaxes and goes (in a squeaky voice) ‘Oh. Beaut. Song and dance!’ ‘
‘… even now, we get the impression Sydney people just want a good song and dance. It’s probably the leagues club tradition or something …’
There has always been a strong element of audience confrontation in Los Trios’ performances. Although the pair usually start out too frightened to even speak into their microphones, by the end of the performance the audience/performer barrier is lying smashed on the floor. While many reviewers have labelled them ‘gross’ and ‘sick’ (‘People still get offended by squashed bananas,’ observes Gladwin, drily), others have called the act ‘dangerous’. It’s an area that has always intrigued the pair.
“We started out experimenting with what made theatre happen,’ explains Kearney. ‘What sort of elements created drama and tension between actors and an audience. Some of the things I do, like swinging deckchairs over the heads of the audience, are meant to create the impression of danger, but it is a theatrical impression. If I get hurt or the audience gets hurt, it means a loss of discipline, a loss of control and suddenly I turn into an amateur—a young kid on stage with a lot of enthusiasm.’
‘Some of the things I do, like swinging deckchairs over the heads of the audience, are meant to create the impression of danger, but it is a theatrical impression.’
The Los Trios style of comic anarchy, ‘comedy of values’ according to Gladwin, is very much in vogue in the U.K. at present. The producer of the British TV comedy series, Not The Nine O’Clock News, who was one of the judges of the Perrier Award in Edinburgh, told the pair how obvious it was that their act was in a more highly developed state than others in the field.
Kearney sees the Perrier Award as official recognition of the work Los Trios has been doing for years. ‘Because you’re from the fringe/cabaret circuit, you’re often treated as a sort of freak—you know, “He hasn’t got a glass piano—he’s not really important.” We had to go over there to get some credibility. And that’s a really bad attitude.’
Gladwin describes the audience at their recent Melbourne season as being ‘totally general public’. Kearney elaborates: ‘They were people who probably went to see The Pirates of Penzance the week before. Because we’ve been going so long, a lot of people have seen us years ago and since all this ‘oh, they’ve made it overseas’, a lot of them are coming back to see what the new joke is.’
Along with fellow Melburnian Max Gillies. Los Trios are the only comedy performers to make the transition from cabaret venues to theatres in recent years. ‘It’s a logical progression,’ says Gladwin. ‘You can do more. There’s time there to create moods. You don’t have to say, ‘Hold on, I’m trying to do something sensitive.’ Some things we do aren’t meant to get laughs and people get impatient at cabarets.’
The absence of a viable fringe/cabaret circuit in Australia has also forced their hand somewhat. After winning the Perrier Award, Los Trios worked eight weeks straight, without a day off, at theatres in London and then British provincial arts centres.
‘There is a population there that supports the fringe,’ says Gladwin. ‘You could spend years playing the circuit of arts centres.’
‘We just got an instant foot in the door,’ adds Kearney. ‘Offers to work with the director of The Two Ronnies, and the producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News. It was just magic. God knows what would’ve happened if we’d made that kind of impression in America. We got offered two weeks shooting with the Comic Strip (Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, French & Saunders and co) in Spain, making a spaghetti Western but we were just eating into our holidays, getting offered more and more work, amazing TV spots that most comics would be screaming to do. So we took three weeks holiday and I killed myself touring Europe looking at museums.’
There’s a possibility Gladwin and Kearney will go back to the U.K. later this year to work in the area of T.V., but for the moment they’re on a tour that has already taken in Melbourne and Sydney and which will go on to the Perth Festival, the Adelaide Festival and then Canberra. After that it’s holidays, but work on a 25 minute film called The Cleaning is almost complete and that should be screening in cinemas in the middle of the year.
Written January 1984, previously unpublished.