Jingle Bellethon Telethon — A Response

When I step out of the rain and into the bar at Basement, it’s to the house speaker soundtrack of Matt Rogers’s Have You Heard of Christmas? Instantly, I feel like I’m at home—and, in many ways, like I have an idea of what I’m in for. The bar is bustling, a throng already collected outside the theatre doors, which aren’t due to open for another ten minutes, at least. It’s the delayed preview night of Jingle Bellethon Telethon, the latest incarnation of the annual Basement Christmas Show (this year helmed by Janaye Henry and Bea Gladding, with support from Jamaine Ross). The audience is raring to go.

In due course, the doors do open, and we’re welcomed into the space. In front of the usual seating blocks, we’ve got a selection of group tables extending onto the set—and what a set it is. Emblematic of the show we’re about to experience, this set is full noise: a back wall of glittering tinsel streamers, densely packed; a music station on audience left and a presenters’ desk on the right; a podium for the phone on which the titular telethon hinges; a sizeable ‘ON AIR’ sign; a large camera set-up constructed fully out of felt and parked in the centre of the theatre. 

“Emblematic of the show we’re about to experience, this set is full noise.”

The felt is a recurring theme: throughout the evening, we’ll see boom mics, hand sanitiser dispensers, several cooked chickens, and more, all crafted from this same material. It’s a smart resource measure, as well as a great exercise in both world-building and communication of tone. Props—ha!—to the design team here: costume designer Natasha Ovely, set designer Minsoh Rachael Choi, and lighting designer Bekky Boyce (who also operates the show). Right from the off, Jingle Bellethon Telethon is set up as a playful, almost absurd work highly aware of its own construction.

The performance starts almost as soon as we enter, with a rich display of pre-show chatter. The Musician (Sean Rivera) checks levels with the Soundie (Janaye Henry); the Floor Manager (Batanai Mashingaidze) asks audience members about camera placement; Health & Safety (Jaackie Black) comes by, complete with clipboard and—yes, felt again—hand sanitiser. There’s a sense of the frantic, lots of little interchanges to pick up on. Much of the audience is still settling in as this is going on. But I’m soaking it all in: if I love two things, they’re (1) a strong ensemble and (2) a backstage drama.

Jingle Bellethon Telethon provides, and then some. Over the course of the evening—the Telethon carried out in real-time—we experience the workplace consequences of personal disagreements (dare we even speak the words: dry chicken), choreographed group appreciation with diminishing returns (a classic Telethon update, “Thank You Very Much for Your Kind Koha”), crowdwork satirising presenters who don’t listen, and recurring vignettes: Chrisco ads of increasing absurdity, and vaguely sinister, blue-washed, slow motion interludes that throw the teens behind me into audible confusion. There’s talk of mass emigration to Australia, there are distressingly few calls, and there is—in classic Basement Christmas Show fare—a celebrity guest who shows up, comes through, and helps get the team through the Telethon.

“Indeed, the standout component of Jingle Bellethon Telethon is its cast . . . each member of the ensemble brings their own distinct comedic flavour to what are often multiple roles.”

The guest on this particular night is Ivanna Drink, of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under fame (“I didn’t win,” she caveats). She is glamorous, and game, from holding sound equipment, hosting, taking calls (which she has a background in, although they may change the Telethon’s rating), and engages in a solid repartee and dynamic with Riah Karaoke (Brady Peeti), the Telethon’s resident diva. She takes to the world of the show, and the ensemble therein, brilliantly.

Indeed, the standout component of Jingle Bellethon Telethon is its cast. Functioning without an archetypal straight man (you could argue for the Floor Manager, sure, but even her commitment to the cause is dialled up, and Mashingaidze commits), each member of the ensemble brings their own distinct comedic flavour to what are often multiple roles.

Janaye Henry makes compelling work of a Soundie in a Christmas-related conflict with her wife (Mashingaidze’s Floor Manager), and delivers a literally-moustache-eating stand-up routine as washed-up comic Peter Cruise. The aforementioned Batanai Mashingaidze is a commanding presence, believable in the driving role, with an energy that ricochets from determined to desperate but never, ever drops. (The rocky relationship between Henry and Mashingaidze’s characters gives us the early gem: “Barbara says when we get like this we have to hug.”)

Brady Peeti brings the house down as Riah Karaoke, offering commentary from a special felt-dressed throne in the audience and treating us all to a climactic rendition of Silent Night. Her costume, a lush purple tulle gown, is also spectacular (kudos again to Ovely). Jaackie Black works triple time as Health & Safety, the Telethon’s guest Magician, and Chrisco Lady Four, each new character bringing with it a refreshed approach, and showing off Black’s truly impressive comedic range. 

Jake Arona and Talia-Rae Mavaega double as our two Telethon Hosts and a pair of the notorious Chrisco Ladies. The former dynamic at first appears to be that of straight-laced old pro vs. informal new blood, which finds its own resolution, following bananas used as microphones, Telethon talent dropping like flies (other holiday icons dropping from the rafters), and a collective call of “Leshgo!”. Sightlines through the cabaret tables mean I miss some of the action at the hosts’ desk, but Arona and Mavaega make plenty of use of the rest of the performance space, so all is not lost.

Rounding out the cast is Sean Rivera, who plays the Musician and—for anyone keeping tabs on a missing number thus far—Chrisco Lady Three. He occupies a corner of the stage with a kit of various instruments, and provides both accompaniment and an impeccable comedic performance. Rivera is a perfect example of an actor remaining totally energised within a role that offers comparably less to do line-wise; his expressions and physicality, and where he pitches his work, are brilliant. You just want to watch him.

The show closes with a curtain call full of choreography, and the cast more than prove they can dance. It makes me wish that amongst all the rest Jingle Bellethon Telethon is offering us—and we’re talking heaps here: laughs, vocals, reimaginings of classic Christmas iconography—we’d been treated to a few expansive musical numbers. Nevertheless, what we get is a bright, eclectic romp of a Telethon, exploding out of the theatre with jokes and twists and felt masterpieces. If you’re looking for something silly and strange onstage this season, Jingle Bellethon Telethon is the show for you—right up until December 22nd.

The Jingle Bellethon Telethon is only on for four more days—don’t be a Grinch, grab your tickets and get into the silly season. There are two sessions each night, so you can start early at 6:30 pm and get your full night’s sleep, or head in late at 9:00 pm and kick off the night with some laughs.

Featured image courtesy of Basement Theatre.


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