The factory of Sisters Grimm (although I’ve always imagined it more like a dank, sweaty, suburban cinema glistening with faux-gold trimmings, condoms hanging from the chandeliers and globs of lube in the hairy velvet carpet) never stops churning. Fresh from last year’s trash extravaganza musical Bum Town and a season of Mommie and the Minister at the Adelaide Fringe, Ash Flanders and Declan Greene have regrouped with a new cast, as well as some familiar faces, in the Collingwood Underground Arts Space for Cellblock Booty. It’s a furiously energetic, high-camp homage to the women in prison sexploitation films of the seventies and easily represents some of the most painfully, painfully, devastatingly funny work of the company to date.
There’s really not much point talking about the plot of Cellblock Booty; from murder plots to escape attempts and drug-trafficking discharge dilemmas, it could have been lifted from any of Roger Corman’s b-grade atrocities. But you don’t see a Sisters Grimm play to sit back and appreciate the subtle nuances of theatre storytelling. Cellblock Booty takes a simple formula of stock women in prison film characters, the ‘innocent newbie’ Sister Dominique of the Order of the Little Wing (Kiloran Hiscock), ‘hardened long-timer’ Connie Horowitz (Ash Flanders, reprising his grotesque Barbra-Streisand-cum-Fran-Drescher creation from Bum Town), ‘mentally unstable drug addict’ Kiki Ramone (Jenni Douglas) and ‘token black’ Butterfly Jackson (Alexandra Aldrich), and twists them and pushes them to their gross-out extremes. Throw a bondage-loving behemoth lesbian Matron (Simon Morrison Baldwin) and her short-short clad minion Officer Onlyman (Patrick Constantinuo) into the mix and watch the cage rattle, the clothes drop and the discom-boob-ulators burn.
Cellblock Booty was developed with the assistance of a residency at HotHouse Theatre, Albury, and the cast have clearly benefited from their period of intensive workshop. Their performances, as individuals and an ensemble, are salivatingly good. They each work their characters with endearing enthusiasm and a sustained stylised edge; Aldrich, in particular, as a charcoaled-up Butterfly, nails the blaxploited afro-woman with a horrifying, though unremittingly hilarious, precision. She later almost entirely subverts this caricature in a one-on-one encounter with Officer Onlyman in what is possibly the best scene, and the most original, of the play. Morrison Baldwin shows some clever restraint as Matron, letting the impact of his physical enormity and superbly designed costume by Jason Cheng (not to mention the Ally McBeal fetish), do much of the unsettling. The dance, action and song sequences are performed fantastically, never letting any of the momentum slide, and are accompanied by a rollicking soundtrack by The Trashwomen that echoes grungy 70s funk.
But it’s the humour that keeps you there. Enough has been written about the crass-camp glam comedy that Sisters Grimm offers for those offended by such content to know to steer clear. If you go to Cellblock Booty expecting anything other than entendres about the viscosity of clam chowder, scenes centred on the insertion and removal of objects from orifices, at least two exposed breasts, one or two exposed testicles, plenty of arse and a constant onslaught, an unyielding barrage, of lesbian jokes, you’re probably going to throw up all over yourself and on the set and actors as you try to escape the space. If, on the other hand, you’re amused by these things, you’re more likely to dampen your seat (word of warning – the venue is especially cold).
Greene’s direction is sterling solid and, operating both lights and sound (and co-ordinating front of house), demonstrates a real commitment, engagement and dedication to his craft and company. His decision to use a single corner of the Collingwood Underground Arts Space to build a minimal set (the budget was probably blown on the discom-boob-ulator and escape vent) rather than somewhere in its centre not only serves the aesthetic of the piece, but keeps the action intimate and the acoustics good. The script, co-written with Ash Flanders, is an exceptional exercise in appropriation, homage, satire and poor-taste trash. However, as a performance text, there are still some issues relating to plot, particularly in the final twenty minutes, which need to be addressed with further dramaturgy. The abruptness and easiness of the ending was also an unwanted blip on an otherwise stunning show.
Sisters Grimm keep churning it out, and keep showing how it should be done; that humour, in theatre, does not have to be something delicately sprinkled throughout the first act before the play becomes serious after interval. Cellblock Booty is an unmissable seventy minutes of pure schlocky fun. Watch these boys.
Cellblock Booty runs at Collingwood Underground Arts Space, 44 Harmsworth St Collingwood, 1-11 May, shows Thu-Sun. See http://www.sistersgrimm.com.au for more information and bookings.