BY BEN NIELSEN
‘Cog in the Machine’ by Sally Whitwell
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ VOX with musical director Liz Scott
Glebe Town Hall, 5 December
‘Christmas in Glebe couldn’t be any less like the movies,’ the narrator begins. ‘No snow, no door-to-door carols and no chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’
Instead of these romantic visions of festivity, the Helpus family sits sweltering inside its un-air-conditioned house. All five pairs of eyes are glued to a different screen: iPhone, iPad and iMac. Even though it’s Christmas, this suburban family teems with torpor and dysfunction.
But, when Mr Helpus clicks on an online banner advertisement, the family is drawn into an evil plan. The mastermind behind it, Dr Spin, will change the way the Helpus family sees Christmas forever.
This is ‘Cog in the Machine’, a festive family tale with a twist. It’s the baby of ARIA award-winning artist Sally Whitwell, who was commissioned by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs to write the book, lyrics and score.
Whitwell also takes a place on the stage (amidst a vast array of toy instruments) alongside VOX, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ young adult ensemble, a cast of featured singers and NIDA graduate Duncan Ragg (who is a thoroughly engaging narrator).
‘Cog in the Machine‘ is a solid first foray into music theatre. Whitwell’s score includes some lovely moments – ‘Sifting the Stars’, Bobby’s waltz, and, of course, the spiky main theme played by the melodica. There are also some impressive ensemble pieces with accompanying choralography.
The narrative itself hinges on Whitwell’s aversion to commercialisation, consumerism and the aggressive marketing machine. She also provides commentary on technology, family relationships, teen angst and gender roles. These themes are discussed explicitly in the dialogue, embodied by the characters (Bobby sees himself as gender-neutral) and are also run throughout the narrative (L.I.E.S Corporation, and the superhero Misogyny-Man).
This overt messaging and the sheer number of concepts being conveyed bogs down the story’s heart. The homespun dialogue threatens to create a bigger rift between the intellect and the emotional capacities of the work. The story is somewhat liberated by the 30-odd voices that skilfully deliver Whitwell’s song and lyrics.
It takes just 60 minutes for the Helpus family to find their happy ending, unearth the true meaning of Christmas, and renew their fondness for ‘quality family time’. This neatly ties up all the loose ends for the parents and youngsters in the audience, who are left bobbing to Whitwell’s sing-along arrangement of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.