Human Service a new satirical opera
Music, Musical theatre, News, Performing arts, Reviews

A Scrambled Serving

Fringe World review: Human Services by Queen’s Hall Music ·
28 January, 2018 Perth Town Hall ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

“Thank you for holding. Your call is important to us.”
Cue soulless, infuriatingly cheerful piano loop.
“Your call is now – two-hundredth – in the queue.”

Human Services
The hero (Wesley Williams), sits in a stupor for most of the show. He is pictured here with Emily Schinkel and Andrew Tuckey.

This is how we are greeted as we take our seats in the Perth Town Hall for the opening night of Human Services, described as “a new satirical opera” by local presenters Queen’s Hall Music. Upon the stage sits our hero (let’s call him Centrelink Sam), played by Wesley Williams. He is slumped in an old armchair, next to his landline telephone (how retro!), sporting the iconic Bonds wife-beater/K-mart flanno combination. He sits in a stupor for most of the show, except for one number towards the end when he finally stands up to speak (read: sing) against the Department of Human Services in an overly exaggerated North-Queensland accent.

Funnily enough, his broad Australian drawl is a welcome change to the melodramatic, operatic tone of the rest of the musical. All performers showed commendable vocal ability at the performance viewed – the customer service operators, the medical professionals, the frightening academic/policy advisor, the ABC journalist and the predictably greasy politician. And for an entirely sung-through musical, you’d hope they’d have the chops to make it through fifty minutes of material. But too often, the words were incomprehensible. The witty, wordy text didn’t carry well in the huge, half-empty hall with un-mic’d performers and acoustic piano accompaniment. It was a shame, because the songs serve as dialogue, action AND character development all in one; there is very little happening on stage otherwise.

At one point, the characters don’t know what to do, so they start singing a fugue. Anyone with a background in classical music composition knows that a fugue is bloody hard to write, and composer William James Smith (no, not that Will Smith) has pulled it off with flair. Hats off to him for some excellent vocal writing that is rightly compared to that of Gilbert and Sullivan. But I wonder how I would have received this musical if I didn’t have a musical background?

I wish I could have seen Human Services in a more intimate venue, and I wish Centrelink Sam was a hero that I could really root for, rather than a brain-dead human prop of sorts. I get that satires don’t have a lot of room for character development, but making a caricature of your hero – the underdog, the everyday Aussie bloke getting shunted through the system? It all seems too nihilistic, and perhaps patronising to people who have actually suffered at the hands of the Department of Human Services… people who might otherwise enjoy the heck out of this show.

Pictured top: Composer and performer William James Smith and ensemble demonstrated commendable vocal ability but the witty, wordy text didn’t carry well in Perth Town Hall.

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