Over the past nine years, The Little Red Company (TLRC) has thought and achieved big. In the process of creating clever studies of musical influence(r)s to showcase its co-founders Naomi Price and Adam Brunes’ creative strengths – initially co-writing vehicles for singer/actor Price – it has carved out a unique niche in the Brisbane cabaret and music-based theatre scene and become an independent production house success story.
When COVID-19 shut down live performance venues in 2020, TLRC was one of the first to launch a digital alternative, bringing relief and hope to artists and audiences alike through its 10-week IsoLate Late Show, a variety lineup watched by more than 300,000 individual Facebook users.
Last week, TLRC’s reach was recognised when it received four-year Queensland Government funding for the first time. PR man Brunes remains behind the scenes as marketing director, with frontwoman Price wearing the mantle of Artistic Director.
The latest musical catalogue inspiring the talented pair is that of the James Bond film franchise. Cue a licence to thrill (as the show’s tag promises) with nods to lavish black-tie cinematic style and grand entrances à la 007, capitalising on South Bank Piazza’s scale and design to deploy distinctive modes of transport that are best left as surprises.
It’s a perfect target for the tongue-in-cheek brand that melds serious musical chops with a subversive streak. The uber-confident quick-witted Price flips disarmingly from sophisticated sultriness to everyday earthiness, reeling off wisecracking quips and throwaway takedowns.
After teasing that we are going to hear all 26 Bond themes, she dismisses the idea: “Of course we’re not – (the show) would be as long as Boy Swallows Universe.” (Brisbane Festival’s hit adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestseller is three times longer than Skyfall‘s 70 minutes.)
This may be James Bond, but Price makes it a woman’s world. Even real-life partner and co-star Luke Kennedy – who nails the look – is at her command, happily playing straight man. After swapping “200 metres” of tulle haute couture for a golden tux, she affirms why she’s wearing the pants, the flick of her head directing Kennedy to pick up an item she’d accidentally shed, resulting in him missing the first few words of his song.
Opera-trained Kennedy generated a broad national profile when he demonstrated his versatility on the second season of TV singing comp The Voice, finishing runner-up. Price expanded hers by also later featuring on The Voice as a semi-finalist (coming sixth), but her award-winning supporting role in the Australian musical Ladies in Black has consolidated her status as a musical theatre performer.
It is Price’s all-around skills that make her a compelling artist; Kennedy’s sublime voice distinguishes him. The structure of the show reflects their complementary styles and personalities. They only sing one duet, and the talking is mostly left to Price, although the two do indulge in some playful punny banter substituting COVID vaccine names for Bond girl monikers and theme artists, most amusingly with Madonna becoming Moderna.
The musical presentation is the engine driving Skyfall, big 12-cylinder power blasting from an eight-piece horn section alongside a band quartet (guitar, bass, keys and drums). Kicking off with the spy’s signature instrumental, the famous 14 themes we do get might leave you surprised that there are another 12 that are clearly less memorable; expect all your favourites, including Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, Diamonds are Forever, Nobody Does It Better, and the two recent Oscar-winners by Adele, Skyfall, and Sam Smith, Writing’s on the Wall.
The honeyed tones of vocalist Lai Utovou (winner of Channel 7’s All Together Now), oozing cool in a red velvet suit and bow tie, added another aural dimension on The World is Not Enough. I would have liked to have heard more from him (although he did sing again in the encore), and felt the two Shirley Bassey numbers would have been a good fit.
After inspiring TLRC’s brilliant first production, Rumour Has It: 60 Minutes Inside Adele, the British chanteuse is now even more galvanising for Price, who highlights the added resonance of Skyfall’s heroic lyrics amidst our current plight. “How lucky are we to be here!” Price declares.
In its staging, presented to a mix of table and raked seating, the production registers as a cross between a concert and cabaret. The latter comes from the edgier staging elements traversing the auditorium and interacting with audience members. And performance artist, The Slaying Mantis, who first enters as a gold-sequinned bouffant blonde drag queen on a Segway chariot, competing with the huge mirror ball overhead for bedazzling sparkle. She swaps her skirt for PPE in a fun bit, before later peeling off a further layer to deliver a contemporary dance accompaniment that doesn’t quite gel.
It’s the bridging of its delivery approaches where Skyfall falls a little short of its musical bar. It’s hard to make cabaret work in a venue this large and sparse, and sight lines proved a problem with some floor-level antics, which would have been fine in a more intimate venue. The same goes with the sense of inclusiveness that comes with those environments.
Onstage, even though it would be more conventional – and yes, expensive – I felt like some numbers would have been more visually dynamic if accented by two or more backup dancers providing both high-energy and lyrical accompaniment.
This did leave me wondering if the absence of versatile guest vocalist Irena Lysiuk (named in the program) had effected a reduction in the presentation variety I was seeking. Presumably the set list order change was due to this lineup change.
Amongst the legends who’ve belted out Bond tunes across seven decades, there is one whose career has included hits in most of them. So Skyfall gives us a dance-worthy Tom Jones (Thunderball) medley for its upbeat encore.
Even for consummate performers such as these, filling a cavernous space like the Piazza is a challenge, and to their credit, their energy and commitment do not waver. They might have scored an Aston Martin DB11 (albeit in need of a dust-off) and designer threads for the season, but being an independent company, Price had spruiking to do for both this season and TLRC’s upcoming one.
While Skyfall doesn’t carry off the highs of its opening spectacle throughout its entirety, it rewards audiences with an aural treat and overall damn good entertainment – it’s a happy antidote to our dreary and uncertain times.
Skyfall plays at the South Bank Piazza until 18 September as part of Brisbane Festival.