Robyn Archer reflects on a life around the world in Picaresque

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On Tuesday night, the audience filled the half-moon seating of the Banquet Room at the Adelaide Festival Centre, where Robyn Archer’s Adelaide Festival show Picaresque is being held.


As you walk towards the entrance of the Banquet Room, you walk past boards of boarding passes, heavy luggage tags, hotel pens, hotel slippers and Qantas inflight magazines. Early on in the show, Archer tells us that this is called “The Robyn Archer Carbon Footprint of Shame: as she assures us that she’s not a hoarder but that she had kept everything knowing there would be a use for it at some point. Cheekily hinting that she knew this show was going to happen sometime in her future.


The centre of the room was filled with tables on which stand intricate maquettes, models of significant buildings from around the world. Robyn Archer and George Butrulius enter the room, Archer strumming her guitar and George Butrulius playing his accordion. The show opens with a very American song, being about Mama’s roadtrain.


We then go to where Archer’s travels began, in London at the age of 29 when she went to be interviewed by and ultimately perform for the Royal National Theatre of London. To that end she sings the 1932 song by Bud Flanagan and Reg Connelly “Underneath the arches”. William Hargreaves’ 1915 “Burlington Bertie from Bow” was fun song and one which had the audience laughing at certain points.


Archer is not just an accomplished singer, guitarist and ukulele player but also quite the story-teller. Between songs, and sometimes even in the middle of songs, Archer tells the audience stories of her travels or about the songs themselves.


Then we head across to the continent for Italy, where Archer performs a song of resistance “Bella ciao”, which she performed back in the 70s at The Italian Festival in Adelaide and at this point calls out to someone who asked her to perform at that very festival. We then launch into a Dean Martin ode to Italy. Archer jokingly tells us that to sound like Dean Martin you just need to not let your lips meet when you say consonants. Her version of the song sounded uncannily like Dean Martin and had the audience in laughter.


We then travel with Archer to Switzlerand with a bit of yodelling and a nod to Mary Schneider, Australia’s Queen of Yodel, who Archer herself programmed at one of her Adelaide Festivals, which caused massive outcry from lovers of classical music.


Then across the border into Austria, where we have a bit of Mozart (but much to my joy, in French) and the “Song of the Moldau” by Eric Bentley, Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisle.


Unsurprisingly given Archer’s experience performing Brecht songs, he features a few times in the repertoire of Picaresque, including in the Song of the Moldau mentioned above but also with “The Children’s Anthem” and “The Threepenny Opera” which Archer sings for Germany.


Archer has not visited Greece and has somehow managed to lose the flat packed model of the Parthenon! That however allows George Butrulius  to shine, singing in Greek for the first time while playing the bazooka. He sings a song of a son writing to his mother to inform her he has consumption.


We then travel on to “The Port of Amsterdam” before heading to Spain, where we are treated to another “Bilbao Song”, which is another by Brecht (and Kurt Weill).


We continue with travels to Russia and India, the latter being where Archer performed a song at a memorial service to Walter Burley Griffin, designer of Canberra who passed in Lucknow, India.


Australia is not left out either. Archer makes a quick segway, while onto the subject on anthems as Archer performs “The Song of Australia” and reminds us that this was one of the choices in the 1977 plebiscite. She amusingly tells us the story of singing “My city of Sydney” with her head in a bucket, having being inspired by a cockatoo who would squawk with his head in a tin, which amplified the terrible sound even more. Archer also delights us singing one of her own compositions from 35 years ago.


Many of the maquettes that we see around the room were sourced from a bookstore near L’Odeon Theatre in Paris and as such it is only fitting that Archer performs a French song. Archer wanted to keep this as a surprise for the show when I interviewed her so I am going to keep the secret here too.


Archer tells us about her travels all across America from coast to coast and up and down and across. First up in the American songs is “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime” best known as performed by Bing Crosby. Archer tells us that her arrival on the West Coast was on the same evening that Reagan was elected and that her arrival in New York followed the assassination of John Lennon.


America is represented by a very fun, extensive mash-up of songs featuring American cities. We counted at least 20 different songs represented.


Having then gone slightly over the one hour designated time, George tells Archer it’s time to wrap up as he has “a hot date” and the audience has other places they need to be. He proceeds to walk off stage and start walking out. Archer keeps telling us about places she’s been before they close with a song for Lima and walk out the very door they, and we entered through.


Archer’s enthusiasm not just for travelling but also for singing and story-telling is a joy to see. This show is not just a reflection of her travels but also on her performing life. Archer appears to genuinely enjoy taking us on her trip down memory lane.


And as for the accordion, George Butrulius has most definitely shown that it is a multi-dimensional instrument and one that works across a variety of musical styles. Have you ever heard Mozart played on an accordion before? I didn’t think so.


This show is a joy to watch and we urge you to join Robyn Archer and George Butrulius on their voyage around the world this Adelaide Festival.




Matilda Marseillaise was a guest of Adelaide Festival


Picaresque has just four shows left: 6pm Thursday 14 March, 10pm Friday 15 March, 5:30pm Saturday 16 March and 7pm on Sunday 17 March (which is also the last day of Adelaide Festival 2019).


Tickets cost $59 plus booking fee. There are discounts available for Friends of the Festival, concession card holders and under 30s. You can purchase your tickets here:


Robyn Archer will also be speaking at Festival Forums at 12:30pm on Thursday 14 March. This event is free:


You can view Picaresque, the exhibition of the maquettes and travel memorabilia for free each day from 10am to 5pm until the close of Adelaide Festival on Sunday 17 March.

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