It’s 1989. Australia has a secret space mission that’ll put it up there with the world super powers who are leading the space race: to send a manned capsule further than any other country can. So they choose Pluto, the planet furthest from the sun. Two people are chosen for the mission, Jared, a ten-year-old genius, and 18-year-old called Xavier. They are about to embark on a 20-year journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system.
While state-of-the-art technology (for 1989) is provided for them, it is, as always implemented by humans who, even at their best, are subject to the human condition. So while the latest digital devices are at hand, the scientists working on the project are somewhat overstretched, the strain of the mission destroying their relationships. The result of bitter break-ups experienced by everyone is that the ‘favourite song’ each contributes to the mission ultimately amounts to ‘The Best of Phil Collins’.
Cut to 2006: Dylan and Penny, a pair of hackers, stumble onto information about this secret mission 17 years into it, when a symposium of astronomers have decided that Pluto is no longer the planet furthest from the sun in our solar system, because, they’ve decided, Pluto is no longer a planet at all. An embarrassed Australian government, wishing to avoid seeming “like a pack of idiots who went to the wrong planet”, therefore want nothing to do with this space mission. Worse than that, Jared and Xavier have been subjected to the Phil Collins back catalogue “approximately 117,000 times”.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is In The Air Tonight, a play currently enjoying a Sydney Comedy Festival run. Playwright Paul Michael Ayre, to whom I’m currently speaking, takes the role of Jared, while David Collins – more popularly known as the wavy-haired Umbilical Brother – plays Xavier.
“In The Air Tonight came about because of two significant things that happened in my life,” Paul explains.
The first involves the CD player in Paul’s car, which broke in such away to ensure the CD within it could not be removed, nor could the setting be changed to radio, but the disc itself would continue to play. The CD was, of course, a collection of greatest hits by Phil Collins.
“I was stuck listening to Phil Collins on repeat for the better part of four months, until I got it fixed,” Paul says.
What can you say to that? Nothing. Except maybe, “Oh Lord!” And perhaps, furthermore, “Oh Lord!”
The second event involved Paul’s friend trying to write a play set in outer space.
“He asked me to come up with a couple of synopses. I came up with ten.”
The tenth one happened to be the remarkably true-to-life scenario – for Paul – of being stranded in outer space with your Phil Collins CD stuck on repeat for eternity. Realising it was too good an idea to give away, Paul asked if he could keep that synopsis for himself. Hence In The Air Tonight.
If you’re not familiar with Paul Michael Ayre and his work, you really must get acquainted. He’s an interesting, talented character. A couple of years ago, he started the website You Had To Be There, which documented live comedy.
“That came about, really as an example of ‘call my bluff’,” Paul says. For years, he reckoned, he could do something that would improve the local comedy scene or make it run better or at least make a major, positive contribution to it, if he put his mind to it. A core belief he kept in his head – and no doubt uttered out loud occasionally – while he pursued academia. Or “uni stuff”, as he calls it.
“I was doing ‘artificial intelligence’ for that, and it was absorbing my entire life, and then I finally decided to give it the old heave-ho and see if I actually can do something about comedy.”
He could. And so was born You Had To Be There, a repository of great comedy, which he set about helping film.
“That we did for about four months, free of charge, for the love of it. Then we joined with Ranko Markovic and Darrin Parker to do Rated Comedy”. Check out Rated Comedy – there is so much great talent producing clips for that site. (Sure, you have to keep sitting through the promo for Sacha Barron-Cohen’s new film at the beginning of every clip right now, but they have to pay for this awesome service somehow!)
After a year of dedicated work with Rated Comedy, which necessarily “took creative time away”, Paul stepped back in order to concentrate a little more on his own comedy pursuits, including sketch comedy.
One of the sketches just premiered in the LA Sketch Comedy Festival, and “killed it!” according to a mate who was in LA, attending. “We were stoked to be a part of that,” Paul says. “That was the most success we’ve had with a single sketch so far.”
While Paul’s intent on their compiling enough sketches to put a pitch together for a television show, currently, Paul is employed by A-List Entertainment, one of the big comedy management companies, to devise sitcoms for the comedians on their books. “I write a million different versions of a sitcom pilot until they’re happy with it, and then we get a crew together with Jeremy Brull…” – the director of In The Air Tonight and most of the sketches Paul appears in – “…and Craig Foster…” – another talented individual, who debuted his film at the recent Atheist Conference – “and shoot it and pitch it to the networks.”
But you probably are familiar with Paul Michael Ayre, particularly if you are a dedicated fan of the Umbilical Brothers, in which case you’ll know his face and his voice. Paul is one of the people who appear in the elaborate menus of the Umbies’ Don’t Explain DVD.
Turns out the Umbies had spotted Paul earlier, and liked his work. He was part of The Delusionists, a sketch comedy troupe that grew, more-or-less, out of uni revue, and enjoyed a couple of years of popular success at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. (Their alumni included great talents like Steen Raskopoulos, Susie Youssef, Alex Lee, Ben Jenkins, Benita De Wit, Michael Hing, Neal Downward and, no doubt, others I’ve failed to list; my apologies.)
On the strength of seeing him in the Delusionists, the Umbies asked Paul to provide The Voice of God in their show Heaven By Storm. It was this association that led Paul to send Dave the completed script of In The Air Tonight, for a critique. Dave’s feedback: “I want to be in it!’”
This current Sydney Comedy Festival season at the Sidetrack Theatre is its second. It premiered last year at the Old Fitzroy Hotel in Woolloomooloo. Through it all – the initial season, and those four months of CD player malfunction, Paul is – and remains – a fan of Phil Collins. After all, he did own a copy of the Greatest Hits CD in the first place. “It’s just that it gets tedious after a while,” he says. As anything repeated ad infinitem, would. Which means Phil’s not about to have a hissy fit about it, you’d suppose.
“We did try to get in touch with Phil Collins,” Paul assures me. “We got as far as his manager.”
See, what happened was, Daven Collins went on tour with Robin Williams; the tour manager of that jaunt happened to be close enough to Phil Collins to have attended his wedding. “He got as far as Phil Collins’ manager, but I think with all the hoopla of Phil Collins retiring this year, this was low on his priority list,” Paul explains. “So as far as he knows, it doesn’t exist.”
What? Phil doesn’t even know about it? I thought there was going to be some amazing ‘inside’ story about how Dave Collins is Phil’s distant cousin or something and said, ‘go for your life’, waiving the royalty fee and throwing in a couple of crates of Cadbury’s chocolate to boot…
“Not quite,” Paul laughs.
‘In The Air Tonight’ is clearly the perfect title for astronauts stuck in outer space. And in keeping with that theme, in addition to the music thematically underscoring the action, every single scene in the play is named after a Phil Collins song. Except one, Paul informs me. “The introduction is called ‘Genesis’.” Very cute. If Paul had also referenced The Artful Dodger or Oliver! – since Phil Collins the child actor appeared as the Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver! – he’d have pretty much sent me into orbit!
As stated, this is the second run of In The Air Tonight; the first one, Paul says, ended its season with sell-out performances, “which was excellent!” In the process, he discovered that a lot of the audience consisted of younger people coming in with the attitude, “I don’t know who Phil Collins is, but I like the idea of some old dude getting the piss taken out of him” and then realising not long after that they not only know who Phil Collins is, they also pretty much love his back catalogue.
If you’ve been paying attention to the Sydney Comedy Festival, you’d notice not only that Dave Collins is appearing in Paul’s play, but also that Shane Dundas, the other Umbilical Brother, stepped out in his own first solo show, Believe. Has Paul inadvertently - ahem - cut the cord and broken up the group? Is he Dave and Shane’s Yoko?
“No,” Paul insists. “It’s more of a love triangle…”
What it is, he explains, is that the Umbies’ own show is so physical that they can’t be doing just that all the time – they need to be exercising other muscles – comedic and physical – and giving the ones they’d otherwise use constantly a bit of a break. So expect to continue to see David Collins and Shane Dundas in other shows and doing other things. But they’ve not split, and the proof of that is in the strange dates the season of In The Air Tonight appears to be playing: opening 1st May then no show for couple of nights and then a handful of dates and then more gaps… Part of the reason for that is because Dave has some corporate gigs to play with Shane, as the Umbilical Brothers, on those other nights.
“The downside of having people from internationally successful acts in your show is that if they’re offered other work, they have to go do it,” Paul acknowledges. It may mean that people erroneously turn up hoping to buy tickets at the door for a show that’s just not running that night. “I’m probably going to go to the theatre every night, just in case someone does turn up expecting a show on a night when we’re not on, and apologise profusely.”
I think Paul’s quite possibly the luckiest person I know. I’m not discounting his talent in any way, just pointing out how good it is that he’s getting paid to use it by people who appreciate it!
“I know!” he agrees. “But it only just dawned on me recently. Just the stress of everything that was going on in the real world with writing and performing, I didn’t realise I had the best job in the world until a couple of months ago.”