Preview: The Ballad of Backbone Joe

20:07, Mar 04 2014
Backbone ballad
KNOCKOUT HUMOUR: The Suitcase Royale, from left, Glen Walton, Joseph O'Carroll and Miles O'Neil, who incorporate old junk into their sets.

Australian trio The Suitcase Royale bring their crazy mix of music and slapstick to Wellington. As Joseph O'Farrell tells Olivia Wannan their approach does have its risks.

It's an unusual theatre performer who's happy being interrupted by their audience. But musical thespians The Suitcase Royale are anything but what you might expect.

"One time we had a chihuahua run up on stage - so we incorporated it into the show. We've had drunken brawls in our shows," trio member Joseph O'Farrell says.

"Halfway through our last show in London, half our set literally fell apart and our audience helped us put it back together."

Collapsing scenery is one hazard of Suitcase Royale's signature performance style: what they describe as "junkyard theatre".

The Melbourne-based group will play three shows at the New Zealand Festival.


"On one hand it literally means junk," O'Farrell says. "We find it on the side of the road - objects and materials people don't want anymore - and use it as our sets."

He and fellow performers Glen Walton and Miles O'Neil and director Tom Salisbury find inorganic rubbish collection days particularly exciting. "We hire a ute and a trailer and trawl the streets for old junk," he says.

"Second to that, junkyard theatre also refers to all the different forms we throw up on stage . . . That's the best thing about theatre - you can steal from any art form."

A typical Suitcase Royale performance includes elements of theatre, slapstick, puppetry and music - for their show The Ballad of Backbone Joe the trio play the double bass, guitar, drums and banjo.

A third meaning may be the antiquated technologies Suitcase Royale enjoy integrating into their shows, like manual typewriters and film projectors, O'Farrell says.

In fact, without them coming across one particular outdated apparatus during their time at university over a decade ago, the group might never have existed.

"The first piece of junk we found was an old gramophone in a dumpster behind an Italian restaurant. From it we wrote our first show, Felix Listens to the World.

"It did quite well at the Melbourne Fringe Festival and we toured the show across North America."

But as crumbling sets prove, relying on old junk always makes for a risky act - especially as the trio insist on running the whole show from on stage, O'Farrell says.

"Next to my drums there's a whole line of switches that light the stage. Next to the double bass there's a sound board . . . At any part something can fail and that's what keeps it interesting."

Suitcase Royale begins with two performances of The Ballad of Backbone Joe, a tale inspired by film noir and pulp fiction detective novels.

"We started making a show about tent boxing in the last year before it got outlawed because of its brutality.

"Like a circus, it would roll into town with a big canvas tent. People would train all year and pay 'a pound for a round' to fight the current prize fighter."

The story centres around the unexplained death of bare-knuckle boxer Backbone Joe's promoter, Messy Dimes Dan. Along with the conventional mysterious woman in a red dress, one of the act's most notable personalities is a puppet named White Horn.

"The character is made of some old cow skulls I found on my dad's friend's farm - it's quite a comical appearance."

The show was a big hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and also played in London.

O'Farrell says their shows, while distinctively small Outback- town, translate well to overseas audiences. "People really love the Australian larrikinism in our work."

However, this will be the first time the trio have performed in New Zealand.

They will also play a second show, Royale Riot, where the group performs a number of rockabilly tunes.

Audiences attending Suitcase Royale performances often leave wanting to hear a bit more of their music - so finishing up with such a cabaret works perfectly, he says.

"Our biggest goal is always to be invited to play at a house party."

The Dominion Post