Melbourne Fringe – Neo Radio: Cactus County

Neo Radio Cactus CountyMelbourne Fringe pilgrims will find a trip to Neo Radio’s Cactus County – “A wild west cabaret, in classic radio play style” – has rewards to rival any stagecoach robbery.

Neo Radio may be known to some through their exploration of comedic cabaret in La Petit Morte. In Cactus County we have a solid Western story, given a few twists. These included some saucy modern terms and references such as “assless chaps”, which hopefully sailed over the heads of the young’uns in attendance.

Dusty (Sam Qualtrough, Suade) loves riding his talking horse Bacon (Paul David-Goddard, Mr & Mrs Murder, who also narrates and provides live sound effects). He’s young, kinda dumb, and a long way from the manliness of a typical cowboy. But with his Pappy done gone insane from funky moonshine after losing a bet to villain Texas Tom (also David-Goddard), he’s the man of the household, and so he has to drive their cattle to market.

Despite her big brother’s protective feelings, little sister Jesse (Suzanne Barton, Rush Hour Big Band) knows best, and disguises herself to ride along, inexplicably with the band: Honky Tonk Thomas Byrne (piano), Robbie ‘Bobby Bass’ Finch (double bass), and Chloe ‘Sticksy Chick’ Dempsey (drums), and Dave “Dave” Borgeest (guitar).

Due to Texas Tom’s malevolence, things don’t quite go to plan. Fortunately they meet the worldly owner of a saloon, “I ain’t no lady” Kitty Callaghan (Yvette Hearn, Nuance) who provides information and a love interest for innocent Dusty.

There were a few unfortunate technical matters, such as music tending to drown out vocals early in the piece. The radio play didn’t have the framing you may expect for such a retro format, with only one sponsored ad-break and no introduction to the players. Also, a subplot of David-Goddard’s narrator trying to milk his mic time towards the end felt quite tacked on for not a lot of comedic benefit. I suspect development of his ambitions throughout would have aided this aspect.

But whoa pardners, this piece was worth the ticket price for the music alone. The performers took familiar pop songs such as Sia’s Chandelier, Crowded House’s Better Be Home Soon, and Lorde’s Royals, to country and bluegrass places plaintive and lonesome, or exuberantly twangy, yeehah!

Watching the band change their style of playing to cope with the moods of the soundtrack was also particularly entertaining, but it was unfortunate that the position of the vocalists often hid this asset. Some songs fitted the action better than others, and a selective rewrite of lyrics should remedy this.

Our singers harmonised well together, expertly wrangled their western accents, and showed they also have particular individual strengths. Hearn was well-suited to the country-rock genre with moments reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt. Despite her character’s tough exterior, when by herself, Barton was delicate as a prairie flower, evoking heartbreak and longing. Across his varied selections, Qualtrough gave depth to to his seemingly goofy character in a similarly quality performance.

Whilst often the straight-man for the nonsense going on around him, David-Goddard got good laughs through utterances as the downbeat Bacon, and his perfected hangdog look. Like a cowboy, Cactus County has some rough edges. But, as an unusual style of performance with seriously talented people involved, this rootin’ tootin’ night of good fun had exactly the elements I wanted in a Fringe show.

Dang it’s a short season, so there’s no time to mosey. Get your posse together, dig in the spurs, and ride like the wind to Cactus County.

Melbourne Fringe – Cactus County
The Melba Spiegeltent, 35 Johnston Street, Collingwood
Performance: Wednesday 28 September 2016 – 8.30pm
Season continues to 2 October 2016
Information and Bookings:

Image: Neo Radio’s Cactus County (supplied)

Review: Jason Whyte