Ryan Henry’s new creation Cult is an absolute joy and will no doubt prove a standout of this Midsumma season. It expertly fuses camp, cutting humour with a nuanced exploration of the perennial problem of gay body standards.
Henry is a master of manipulating comedy to tell a deeper story. He understands that in every joke there is a kernel of truth. When you can make people laugh at themselves you can expose them to those truths with thought-provoking consequences.
In Cult there are many things to praise but they all rest on the solid foundation of Henry’s excellent script. It deftly pokes fun at workout culture, gym bro language and the deeply problematic cis-gendered gay male hierarchy.
The tangled web of masculinity is a fertile topic and so many shapes and shades of it are presented here that one could be forgiven for being overwhelmed. Except that Henry never lets them out of his sight and keeps the focus of the show trained on the ways they reinforce and subjugate one another.
There are many memorable throwaways that leave the audience in stitches, but the meat of the humour lies in the devastating portrait of the effect of self-loathing and questionable priorities. In that respect Cult probes some dark topics that, despite their ubiquity in gay culture, often do not get properly aired.
Body dysmorphia, fear of rejection and the thirst for acceptance can sometimes feel like the gay holy trinity. It is a refreshing and positive experience to see them unmasked and questioned in this style.
The action unfolds at the frenetic pace Henry excels at, bouncing between high energy workout sessions and high stakes self-negotiation. The latter, comprising sporadic dialogue with Henry’s fabulous and unapologetically unhelpful reflection, is especially entertaining while still tinged with a haunting pathos.
Henry’s talent for comedy is on proud display throughout. The intelligent satire in the writing is seasoned with his enormous gift for movement and physical comedy. You have never seen someone exercise with such amusing desperation. Every moment and motion has an impulse and expands the piece adding breadth to its comedy and depth to its humanity.
The lighting (Ashleigh Basham and Justin Heaton) and sound (Jack Burmeister) are tailored wonderfully to the Meat Market Stables space. Both work in tandem to transport us between the tribal landscape of the evocatively named ‘Potency’ gym and the increasingly tense inner turmoil of Henry’s panicky need to ascend to the ‘top tier’.
A particular standout is the voiceover presence of the sadistic, queer-baiting trainer (voiced by Lachlan Blair) whose validation is worth its weight in gold.
In the pseudo-religious world of Potency this man is both the high priest and the devil. His ocker tone and laughably unreasonable expectations are an amusing caricature in and of themselves and they offer the perfect foil for Henry’s anxious acolyte.
This show will remind you of someone you know (possibly yourself), make you think and leave you laughing. It will only get better as the season progresses.
Meat Market Stables, 2 Wreckyn Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 1 February 2023
Season continues to 11 February 2023
Information and Bookings: www.midsumma.org.au
Image: Ryan Henry in Cult – photo by James Reiser
Review: Daniel Townsend