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The Age

Middle ground

Author: Raymond Gill
Date: 17/07/2010
Words: 1816
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: A2
Page: 10
The multi-talented Eddie Perfect dredges his past in an ode to Mentone, writes Raymond Gill.

EDDIE Perfect and one of the world's most illustrious music outfits, the Brodsky Quartet, will perform Songs from the Middle next week at the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne. The songs Perfect has written include Mentone! Oh Mentone!, My Sister Works at Bunnings and Plummer Road, which is named after one of the lovely bayside suburb's streets and is, Perfect says, a song about "unrequited love and stormwater drains".

If you know anything of the work of the 32-year-old Mentone-raised-and-educated Perfect, then you might suspect this is another one of his satirical, piss-taking outings that mocks, lampoons and exploits the excesses, embarrassments and hypocrisies of the Australian middle class. He is, after all, the cabaret performer who graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 2001 and soon developed a small but dedicated following for his hilarious and scathing shows including Angry Eddie and Drink Pepsi Bitch, and for songs with titles such as John Howard's Bitches, Poor Little Middle Class Me, Gay People Shouldn't Get Married and Some of My Best Friends are Aboriginal.

If you don't live in the inner city where Perfect's fame shines brightest then you might not have heard of What an SMS I'm In from 2009's $2 million show Shane Warne: the Musical, which Perfect wrote and starred in as the peroxided spin bowler. On second thoughts, that particular ditty might have been more a celebration of the legendary larrikin cricketer rather than a send-up, but more on that later.

But when it is suggested that the 13 numbers making up Songs from the Middle sound like a send-up of the sort of suburban bliss found in Mentone (the median house price, by the way, is $712,000), Perfect appears to be genuinely shocked.

"It's not satirical," he says flatly. "It's an ode to Mentone." And to prove his honest intentions Perfect tells of recent months roaming his old suburban stomping ground he left in 1996 "turning over rocks to find some songs under them".

Although he says, "It's not like I'm going back to Arnhem [Land] or anything", Perfect has revisited the sacred sites of his adolescence, which include the car park at the back of Franklins supermarket. He has also noted the changes that time has wrought on Mentone. "I worked as a kitchen hand at Red Rooster, but now it's a Hungry Jack's," he says.

But Songs from the Middle isn't just about Perfect's memories of Mentone. He has read Mentone Through the Years cover to cover and interviewed its author, Leo Gamble, who was a teacher at Perfect's old school, St Bede's, Mentone, where his dad taught humanities. He has even donned work gloves and picked up rubbish on the railway sidings at working bees to prove his bona fides as he quizzed the good members of the Friends of Mentone Railway Society for titbits of historical fact.

Now it's hard to keep his appreciation for Mentone quelled when he tells of its glorious 1880s boomtime beginnings. He recounts how back then it was billed as the "Riviera of the South" and pronounced the Italian way: Men-ton-ay. It still has the street names to prove its Mediterranean roots  Naples, Milan, Brindisi and Como. "Though when I was a kid riding my bike up those streets there was certainly nothing that seemed very European about it," he says.

So is Eddie not so angry any more? Has age, a move from Fitzroy to Healesville, where he and his partner Lucy Cochrane keep two horses, recent fatherhood, the acquisition of the Baby Bjorn he wears while shopping with Kitty (just turned one), and an understanding of why new parents start contemplating the roomy advantages of a four-wheel-drive, mellowed the man?

One suspects not, because Eddie Perfect is still finding his place in the world of showbiz. He's a great talent  he composes songs and writes witty lyrics, he can belt out a power ballad, he has hosted FOX8's Ultimate School Musical and if you saw him as Macheath in the Malthouse Theatre's Threepenny Opera you'd realise he has charisma to burn. But Perfect's inquisitive, restless need to question middle-class mores and conventions makes him unusual in the Australian entertainment business where precocious talent found in the cabaret/comedy scene is usually funnelled into a career in breakfast commercial radio.

"If I stuck with one thing I'd probably be better known. I'd be a composer, or a social political satirist, or an actor, but I like to go project to project doing whatever interests me," Perfect says. Those decisions are made in close consultation with his manager, Michael Lynch, who admits that the phrase "the Eddie Perfect brand" does get used at meetings when considering Perfect's career choices, but only when he is out of earshot. "That's not a meeting I want to be in," says Perfect.

"The reality is not everyone can do the range of things Eddie can do, particularly as a writer, and so we pick and choose those things he's particularly interested in," says Lynch, who argues that Shane Warne the Musical exposed Perfect's talent and potential to a much bigger market.

That exposure is now paying dividends in next week's prestigious Brodsky Quartet project. The group's previous collaborators have included luminaries from the classical world including Dawn Upshaw, Anne Sofie von Otter but also Sting, Dave Brubeck, Paul McCartney, and Bjork and Elvis Costello with whom they now share long-term musical associations.

Viola player Paul Cassidy founded the Brodsky Quartet in the late 1970s with his wife, cello player Jacqueline Thomas, her violinist brother Michael (since replaced by Daniel Rowland) and Ian Belton, also a violinist. While its reputation is built on its interpretation of the works by the great classical composers, the quartet's audience has grown wider because of its left-of-field arrangements from the worlds of pop and jazz.

Cassidy hasn't met Perfect yet but had heard of his appearances in London and Edinburgh and saw him on YouTube and in Shane Warne in Perth last year. When the Australian National Academy of Music's program manager, Matt Hoy, told the Brodsky Quartet that their visit for a series of performances for ANAM students was being extended to a collaboration with Perfect, the quartet happily agreed.

"When Eddie's name came up we all had a good chuckle," says Cassidy from his home in London, describing Perfect as a "one-off sort of guy". The deal was sealed when Australian composer Iain Grandage came on board as Songs from the Middle musical director and both he and Perfect have been emailing their results to Cassidy before rehearsals begin in Melbourne next week. "We think Iain is a huge talent and he brought a seal of approval to the project and we knew we were in safe hands," says Cassidy.

Until last week Cassidy thought Mentone was a lovely coastal town rather than a bayside suburb between Cheltenham and Parkdale. As an outsider he and the other members of the quartet might struggle to see much difference between the stops on the Frankston line, but Perfect can set them straight.

"It's a very sports-oriented place where all the surfie-looking guys and surfie-looking girls would go to the Edgy [Edgewater Hotel] on Friday nights and you had to wear a nice shirt with a collar despite the one-dollar pots that got you rat-faced drunk and spewing in the car park," he recalls.

"I used to be angry at Mentone, but it doesn't deserve anger because it's just so nice," he says. Not that he can imagine living there again. "It's got a lot of yin and not much yang. It's a very yinny place."

Perfect admits he too still has quite a bit of Mentone yin in him because off-stage he describes himself as "docile". "A lot of my anger is that I could be living more honestly if I was not strangled by this sense of politeness," he says. But on stage he loves to try to rile his audiences  especially the inner-city latte sippers, though he agrees that these people seem to enjoy being the butt of his jokes. "People like to be mildly confronted in the theatre but it's 'Ooh isn't this confronting, but it's about the guy next to me and not me'. They enjoy someone else squirming while they feel safe," he says.

Perfect is less clear on why Shane Warne the Musical, which he spent three years creating, didn't turn out to be the success that was hoped for. Although the show kicked off with a bang in Melbourne in December 2008 with rave reviews and an approving Shane Warne in the audience, the show struggled on the rest of its expensive national tour. It closed midway in its Sydney run with its producers not seeing a profit from their $2 million investment.

Perfect says audiences might have been confused as to whether it was a celebration or a piss-take of Shane Warne's colourful personal life.

"Communicating what it was was really hard," he says. "It was a celebration of a guy that really divided people so it was hard to get it across the line."

Ultimately the problem might have been that, outside Melbourne at least, sport and musical theatre don't mix.

"Going to the theatre is still an act of featuring yourself as being cultured," Perfect says, arguing that the difference between Shane Warne and 2005's Keating! The Musical (in which Perfect appeared in 2007) was that Keating! "made people feel smart and was a smart show".

"But sport is anti-intellectual and it's populist and it's what everyone does, and so theatre people didn't feel like seeing a show about sport because it didn't make them feel elevated and smart," Perfect says. "And a lot of people didn't like laughing at the same jokes as the bogan down the aisle."

Lynch says Shane Warne is not dead, "just sleeping". It may still serve as Perfect's entree into the beyond-the-fringe British market, but in the meantime who knows what will come of Songs from the Middle? "Everything is chosen with an eye on where it might go," says Lynch.

When Perfect was first approached by ANAM about a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet the idea was that they would perform new arrangements of his existing songs.

"But I thought what a wasted opportunity," says Perfect. "So I decided to do something from scratch. What better way to premiere a piece than with the Brodsky Quartet? It's a golden opportunity."

And remember this ode to Mentone is a celebration, not a piss-take.

"Everything I write is about the sublime hitting up against the ridiculous," says Perfect.

Songs from the Middle is presented by ANAM and the Butterfly Club as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival at the South Melbourne Town Hall on July 25 and 26, at 8.30pm. Bookings: 1300 273 896 or melbournecabaret.com

 
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