Any team that’s been referred to as ‘Tom Waits meets The Mighty Boosh’ by The Guardian are a group we should all want to get to know. As luck would have it, they’re in Melbourne right now, on the brink of performing their first show down under in two years. You read right folks – The Suitcase Royale is back in town – and they’re about to kick off their Australian tour of their internationally acclaimed and awarded theatrical (and musical) extravaganza, Zombatland.
For the greater part of the last two years, The Suitcase Royale has been garnering an impressive amount of international attention, picking up honours like The Guardian Critics Choice Award 2011 and TIMEOUT London Critics Pick of the Week 2011 to add to their growing repertoire. They’ve been destroying stages from Ruhrfestspiele Festival in rural Germany to London’s prestigious West End, with a few successful stints in the US and Canada in between. But speaking to Jof O’Farrell, one third of The Suitcase Royale, while the boys set up for the Australian premiere of their new show Zombatland, their excitement about finally being back home in Melbourne is glaring.
Zombatland – as one can probably gather from the title – is a story about zombie wombats. Set in the fictional Blue Lagoon Caravan Park, located in an undisclosed corner of the Australian Outback, a mysterious disease suddenly turns all the local wombats into crazed, blood-thirsty demons. Obviously, chaos ensues. Where did the boys come up with such an inspired tale?
“We became obsessed with how great caravan parks are. As we were going around looking at these parks, we came across these stories of people camping and waking up to find huge holes in the sides of their tents. The wombats had come in and stolen all of their food during the night. So we thought, ‘How funny would it be if there were a whole heap of zombie wombats on the prowl?’” Human-eating wombats: terrifying to some, the inspiration of hilarity to others. “At the same time we were really obsessed with the Ozploitation movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s; that whole B-grade Australian movie aesthetic. So we combined those two ideas and we came up with Zombatland.”
The Suitcase Royale isn’t simply a theatre company though. “We started off as a band, and then we started making theatre, and now we’ve really combined the two. It’s kind of like a gig, as well as a theatre show, and it’s all blended into one. I think that’s what has really set us apart internationally. [That concept] has been really successful. It’s fun. It’s a bit more like a party really.”
Another original aspect that contributes to The Suitcase Royale’s success is their use of what they’ve coined ‘junkyard theatre’, which is basically a nice way of saying that all their sets are made out of rubbish. “It mostly started out because finding stuff on the side of the road is the cheapest way to make a set. But we really like the idea of that backyard Australian tinkerer. We basically get a whole heap of great stuff from the side of the road and build the set around that. Zombatland is set in a caravan park so we’ve built two caravans out of old bits of wood.”
Although hugely inspired by the ‘dark and gothic’ nature of the Australian Outback, The Suitcase Royale actually ended up writing most of Zombatland on the other side of the world. “We made the majority of it in the dead of winter in London. We premiered it there in a town hall, and then in Edinburgh in August which was pretty wild. And now we get to show it in our home town.”
So are they excited about finally getting to show their Australian-inspired work to their fellow countrymen? “We haven’t performed in Melbourne for two years – so this is really exciting for us to be back. We’ve got a couple of jokes about being in a drought that didn’t quite land in Scotland and London,” Jof laughs, “so we can’t wait to pull them out. And we have a joke about grogans as well. Some of the more Australian jokes; we’re looking forward to telling them in Australia.”
Beyond their Australian tour of Zombatland, The Suitcase Royale has a lot to be excited about. They have a lot of interest from prominent members of television land. “I think the Flight Of The Concords and The Mighty Boosh really opened a big opportunity for us. People are really excited about our work internationally now in terms of that [sort of comedy].” Jof seems very apprehensive about admitting to that level of greatness. “We get compared to those guys; we kind of fall into that category which is a great thing. They’ve even come to check out our shows and that’s really cool. Almost to have them – obviously not, but you know – almost for them to be in our peer group, but not really, it makes me feel heaps special,” he laughs.
But it seems The Suitcase Royale will need to get used to running in those circles pretty quickly. Apocalypse pending, 2012 is shaping up to be the big break out year for this young trio, so make sure you catch Zombatland while you can – if for no other reason than to tell anyone who’ll listen that you saw those guys for thirty bucks before they were famous.
BY KATE MCCARTEN
Zombatland is showing from Wednesday March 14 – Sunday March 18 at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall.