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March 9, 2015

When Tom Stoppard’s radio play Darkside – based on Pink Floyd’s seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon – premiered in Britain in 2013, Sydney Morning Herald music writer Bernard Zuel wondered whether it might be time we saw an Australian version of the project, suggesting “Brendan Cowell adapting You Am I’s Hourly Daily; Hannie Rayson taking on Paul Kelly’s Gossip; Andrew Bovell diving into Sarah Blasko’s What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have; [or] maybe, David Williamson and Kylie Minogue’s Impossible Princess…” It’s almost as if playwright Aidan Fennessy heard Zuel’s challenge and decided to raise him one, as a year and a half later What Rhymes with Cars and Girls opens at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Very much inspired by – as well as emerging from – the fabric of Tim Rogers’ 1999 solo album of the same name, What Rhymes with Cars and Girls is the story of Johnno, a hapless pizza delivery boy, and Tash, a smart-mouthed singer who’s running from everything. While featuring a live three-piece band (led by Rogers himself), Cars and Girls is not so much a musical as “a play with songs” in the mode of Poor Boy, albeit with more charm and heart. But where Poor Boy’s songs were somewhat outside the action on stage and became ghostly musical refrains, Rogers’ songs here become integral to the play’s success and charm and, as in a musical, come to express the characters’ thoughts and feelings in a slightly heightened form.

Directed by Clare Watson with warmth, charm, and a gentle hand which doesn’t judge either character’s flaws as anything other than human, the play springs to life in the Arts Centre’s Fairfax Studio, on a set which resembles a recording studio in all its intricacies and minutiae. Tangles of leads, amps, instruments and carpets line the walls, while a live sound-mixing desk sits behind the glass in the back corner, a spiral staircase hides a bin overflowing with coffee cups, takeaway containers and old pizza boxes, and an obligatory couch sits to one side. On this little crucible of a stage, much like Belvoir’s hallowed Upstairs corner, there is a magic which Fennessy and Watson weave that feels like it has always meant to be, that this is a story that has always been there, just biding its time until it was ready to be told by the right people in the right way.

Fennessy’s script is a masterpiece in vernacular ventriloquism, his words and images seeming to spring out of the same well-spring as Rogers’ album, and the two are made complete by each other. While the play is told very much in hindsight, it slips in and out of first and person modes of storytelling, all at once part of a scene and then out of it, commenting on it. It’s a beguiling mix, a cheeky and sometimes forthright concoction which fizzes with a sweet tenderness and a rather killer turn of phrase. Even though the album was inspired by Rogers’ move to Melbourne, the story is largely set in Sydney; while no places (excepting Mosman) are described by name, there are enough clues for those who know to work out where it takes place, and – like the precise milieu of Chekhov’s Russia – this specificity gives Fennessy’s play, as it gave Rogers’ album before it, a certain universality. Ultimately though, place is not important here so much as the people, as the relationships and interactions between them, and Fennessy creates some beautiful moments, moments that seem to have walked right out of Rogers’ songs living breathing sweating loving bursting, even if they were never intended like that.

Johnny Carr’s Johnno and Sophie Ross’ Tash are both endearing and instantly likeable. From the moment Carr first appears on stage as Johnno, telling us about the house he lives in with his father under the flight path, we’re sucked in by his laconic charm, his cheeky confidence and his Everyman enthusiasm. There is a slightly rough edge to Ross’ Tash which makes her more real, and her vaguely bohemian free-spirited charm is in direct contrast to her family’s privilege. Neither Tash or Johnno feel like characters, but people we might know, and there’s an instant charm to be gained through this; it feels not so much ‘their’ story as ours, a shared story we’re all a part of.

The on-stage band, led by Tim Rogers on guitars, Ben Franz on bass, and Xani Kolac on violin, opens the sound of Rogers’ album out, so it doesn’t feel as rough as it does, but that doesn’t mean it loses its charm or heart. Along with Tash and Johnno’s voices, it gains an extra layer (or two) of harmonic complexity, and seems to come alive in this small theatre. When not accompanying the songs, the band provides a gentle underscore, a musical heartbeat, which grows out of the fabric of Rogers’ songs. While the songs are all true to Rogers’ alternative-rock style, they are capable of growing into waltzes, softer numbers, and an angry kind of snarly impassioned dixie tune. The singing is strong, and while it might not be perfect or polished, it feels real, emotional, honest, and I think it is more important in this case.

While What Rhymes with Cars and Girls is not going to change the world, there is sincerity enough in here to last you a good while, and it’s nice to see theatre that is this unashamedly emotional for a change. A bit like a pub-gig crossed with a good piece of theatre, with a good dose of heart and a fiercely poetic voice to boot, this is one musical which I’ll be savouring the taste and sound of for a long time to come.

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