Hawke's Bay Arts Festival / 25 October 2019, Spiegeltent / By Jess Soutar Barron
Old friends we haven’t seen in ages come for the night, and it takes a few days to digest the visit. Familiar jokes are exchanged, banter we know the punchline to, songs we used to sing together. It’s cosy and warm and fuels us up for the next expanse of absence ahead of us. They fill us in on the news: Dad died, Mum’s still going strong at nearly ninety, they’ve got a new grandbaby, Jools isn’t well.
The Topp Twins know our news too. They pay homage to the mayor who’s sitting in the good seats near the front. They rope in councillor Malcolm Dixon as ‘hoist’, getting Lynda (in various outfits) on and off the stage. They flirt with the naming rights sponsor. They celebrate the couple in the room who have been married the longest (Mala and Wally, 63 years) and the bride-to-be on her hen’s night. They welcome new friends from overseas. They tease us for being rich people, albeit “down to earth rich people”: dog people, llama farmers, with too many roundabouts.
The Twins proper don’t take the stage til near the end: “We’ve finally come out as ourselves,” they say. Ahead of them is Mavis and Lorna from the Pakuranga Bowls Club, Camp Mother and Camp Leader, Ken and Ken. We know and love them all. National icon seems too thin for them, they are bright patches stitched into the fabric of our national spirit.
I’ve known them since they were arrested for busking on Queen Street in the mid-80s. Back then they had better mullets than you’ll ever see these days, and I was being raised as one of their Untouchable Girls: “stroppy, aggressive, taking over the world”. We met again when they did their tour in a gypsy caravan, then at the Opera House in Hastings, then at the CHB A&P show. We met once or twice in Auckland City, once or twice on the telly, then via CD when I was on my OE and they came over in my mum’s carry-on, precious cargo from home snuggled between a loaf of Vogel’s and a jar of vegemite.
It’s sentimental seeing the Topps again. Not just for their own songs and characters but for the bags of New Zealand culture they carry with them. That nostalgic retro New Zealand circa 1957 to 1993. That lawn-bowling, cuttings-collecting, calf club, sausage and sauce, politically radical but still laid-back era. We are a small but mighty nation made up of small towns, small communities that punch above their weight.
The most lovely part of seeing the Topps again is seeing the delight they have for each other. They laugh at each other’s jokes, admire each other’s yodelling prowess, harmonise with each other in that slightly discordant unison that is so uniquely them.
The lyrics, the stories, the swag and the shtik all focus the audience on the Topps and once they have us they deal out the real message: honour our differences, stand up for ourselves. That’s how we end up in a tent in Havelock North with 700 people bellowing “Fuck you, Mike Hosking!”
There are fun new games and silly bits of business that have the Topp vibe, like time on the road has freshened the repertoire. They could have just stuck with the oldies, but beatboxing Big Butts is chucked in, as is a game called Catch Something Kiwi – perfectly fine when that something is a lamington, a little less fun when it’s a bag of dog-do. And who knew a piece of bread flung to a vegan up the back could fly so far frisbee-style.
Wrapped up inside the scrumptious syrup of gags and tunes is cutting political commentary that reminds us that we have been bold in the past and we should continue to be bold in the future. That gentle touch, that lack of cutting cynicism, it’s a mystery how these two women went from singing cowboy songs to significant contributors to our national psyche, maybe it’s simply stickability, maybe it’s because they know and love us for our foibles and our oxymorons, our idiosyncrasies and our insecurities. They know all that and love us anyway, and we love them in return.
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