Wil Greenway: the way the city ate the stars Melbourne Fringe Festival Festival continues to October 1
By CAITLIN HENDERSON
The story begins in a cramped, creaking theatre in North Melbourne’s historic Town Hall. Somewhere above there’s a towering clock from 1879, glowing like a porchlight, and attracting shivering Melburnians like moths.
Inside a man is running around frenetically, shouting. You can smell pine needles (they’re not really there). The man says it’s summer, it’s Christmas, and you believe him. Forget September.
He clicks his fingers. The hot stage lights cool to blue. You are transported to another place, another time, a reality with different rules.
The theatre is left behind.
Wil Greenway has scarcely tumbled off the plane from the UK on the back of a successful few seasons at the Edinburgh Fringe. He’s brought his award-winning show – about an orphaned child who grew up in Scotland and has never seen the city in which it takes place – back home.
Wil, 33, is hard to categorise. He has a beard, a man bun, and hands that flap like hungry seagulls when he talks. On stage, he wears a collared shirt and no shoes.
He’s a “writer, performer, failure machine”, if you read his Twitter bio. He’s two parts artist and one part self-deprecation, two parts poetry and one part underwear jokes.
His shows either revel in or suffer from the same off-beat contrast, depending on who you ask.
First time Fringe-goer Lachlan “didn’t know what to expect” when he bought tickets to the show.
“At the start I was totally immersed,” he says. “I was really in the story. Then Santa turned up. It wasn’t where I thought it was going.”
Wil clicks his fingers. We’re back at the theatre. The lighting shifts again. You can hear the gentle strumming of Sam Rankin on guitar and the lilting vocals of Kathryn Langshaw floating across the stage.
Wil stands front and centre, describing a delicate, awkward flirtation on “Sydney Rd, Coburg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia”. The girl is just about won over when all of a sudden, Santa pulls up in his sleigh and sweeps her away.
“It wasn’t really Santa,” Wil assures us. “It was hyperbole. It was Andrew.”
The audience laughs. They are on board.
The tonal dichotomy in Wil’s shows can be partly pinned down. He hasn’t always lived in Melbourne. He went through drama school at the Arts Academy in Ballarat. He grew up in Maffra, near Sale, in the depths of Gippsland.
“We make cheese,” he says, as though it explains everything.
Travelling, performing and working as a barista in West Brunswick was not where Wil expected to end up. He turned to theatre after finishing high school and floundering around in a call centre and then a hat warehouse. He’s had roles in television, most recently as Countdown producer Ted Emery in 2016’s Molly, but storytelling shows are where he’s landed.
“I wanted to be a wicketkeeper, but I’m just not very athletic.”
It’s hard to tell if he’s serious.
“My hero is Ian Healy. He moves like a dancer.”
Among Wil’s other influences are Jim Henson’s puppet TV series The Storyteller and, not unusually, his dad who once upon a time regaled Wil and his sister with fantastical bedtime stories.
“He took care and pride in sharing those stories with us, and that’s probably a reason why I take care and pride in crafting these little things you share for an hour,” Wil says.
“Then people go away, but if it’s good … you keep it.”
Back in the theatre, Wil announces: “I spent last night alone, and I slept in a sandwich.” He’s got ants in his underwear.
The audience is in stitches. Wil calls it “magic realism”, something too “sincere” to be straight comedy.
“I try to do sugary sweet things and bitter, ugly bits of reality sprinkled around the show. They sort of feed each other,” he says.
“What I do is pretty whimsical, so to support that you need to ground it in some blood and some bones sometimes.”
Caylie, another audience member, says that “at some points it was almost like poetry, at other points it was a stream of consciousness. It didn’t take anything away from what he was saying”.
Will Greenway in his show.
A guy in the audience is coughing. Wil’s flurry of hands pauses, he fetches a glass of water from the back of the stage. There were two – did he have one prepared, or is this spontaneous? The show continues.
These brief moments of humanity stitch the performance together. The connection between Wil and the audience is a kind of symbiosis. It’s the fusion that happens inside a burning star.
“When the show is good, it’s like – this sounds twee, but there’s something kind of beautiful about that thing you share, just for an hour and the show finishes and it dissipates and it’s gone,” he says.
“That connection, it was real, even if it only lasts once, and then it never happens again. I think there’s real value in it.”
You can tell the story is coming to its climax. There’s music, there’s words bleeding into other words as they race one another into the air to make sense of the world, and the people in it, and the way they touch each other’s lives.
The theatre is still here, somewhere, as well as the clock tower, but the stars are not. They’ve been devoured by the city, blasted out of the sky by a million electric lights.
It’s the kind of thing you don’t think much about when you’ve always lived in the city, the absence of stars.
“It’s so stupid,” Wil says, “how amazing and how boring we are.”
Then, abruptly, the house lights come up. It’s jarring. An hour of storytelling is over in an instant. There’s no time to reflect. The spell is broken. You shuffle out. You blink in the bright light.