Ken Longworth | Russell Cheek's Who Am I . . .?

WINNING WAYS: Former Castanet Club member turned quiz show winner Russell Cheek on stage for his show, Who Am I . . .?
WINNING WAYS: Former Castanet Club member turned quiz show winner Russell Cheek on stage for his show, Who Am I . . .?

RUSSELL Cheek, a member of the renowned Newcastle music and comedy group the Castanet Club, didn’t know what to do with his life when the company folded in 1992 after 10 years of performances around Australia.

So he applied to be a competitor in a national television quiz show, Sale of the Century, and was accepted. To his surprise and delight, he won the contest on each of the eight nights he appeared and collected the big jackpot of cash and other prizes at the finale.

The win enabled him to buy a beach-view apartment at Bondi and, a few years ago, he invited fellow former Castanet Stephen Abbott to share his home after Abbott’s nearby apartment was sold. Cheek had kept videos of the Sale of the Century episodes he appeared in and they began watching them on nights they weren’t working.

“Steve said to me one day ‘Russ, you have a great show here’, and that led to me writing Who Am I . . .? which shows how I became involved in Sale of the Century and my reactions to the things I had to do,” Cheek notes.

Who Am I . . .? had its initial try-out at Newcastle’s Royal Exchange in 2016 and has toured to several capital cities. A Newcastle Civic Theatre staff member saw it in Sydney and so enjoyed it that Russell Cheek was invited to bring it to Newcastle as part of the Civic’s 2018 season. The show will be presented in the Civic Playhouse, nightly at 8pm from Tuesday, June 26 to Saturday, June 30, plus an 11am Thursday show and a 2pm Saturday matinee. Ticket prices range from $25 to $38, with bookings through 4929 1977.

Cheek says the show has changed considerably in the two years since the Newcastle tryout, with Stephen Abbott, who built his career as a writer and performer on radio and TV under the nickname the Sandman, helping to develop the script, as well as directing the show. And it includes clips of sequences from Sale of the Century, many of them amusing, which show the various impacts it had on Cheek.

He won a similar contest, BHP High School Quiz, which was produced by NBN, while a year 11 student at Newcastle Boys High School in the late 1960s, but that wasn’t as frightening.

Nor were his diverse activities between then and the founding of the Castanet Club in 1972, which included gaining a bachelor of arts honours degree, concentrating on German and French, at Sydney University, training at the renowned Ecole Jacques Lecoq acting school in Paris, and touring Europe in productions.

His nervousness after the Castanet Club wound up disappeared after his Sale of the Century win, and he has worked in major theatre productions with actors including Geoffrey Rush and Kate Blanchett.

Theatre Review

Tramp Steamer Tramp

Royal Exchange, Newcastle (ended Sunday); Newcastle Jazz Festival, Wests New Lambton, August 26

WRITER, director and musician David Baker first staged Tramp Steamer Tramp five years ago and this slightly revised edition, with a couple of different songs, confirms that it is a lot of fun. The script, co-written by Chris Gill, has a dilapidated passenger ship, the Shanghai Princess, travelling through the South China Sea in 1937, after Japan invaded nearby China, with the crew members and passengers including some suspicious characters. The story-telling has the format of a radio-broadcast cabaret, with the musicians donning different garb as they switch from one character to another and the brief and amusing dialogue leading into the songs, which are mainly classic swing and jazz numbers from the 1910s to 1930s.

The overture, Creole Love Call, gets the show off to a bright start, followed by Singing in the Bathtub, a smile-raising 1929 spoof of Singing in the Rain delivered by David Baker and Marcus Holdsworth, and At the Cod Fish Ball, with Su Morley, dressed as a cabin boy, doing a lively tap dance while she sings about life on the ship. 

Hindustan, sung by David Baker as a former nightclub entertainer praising what he sees as the good British rule of India, is an interesting reflection of the story’s period, Manny Serrano’s Spanish radio operator puts sultry passion into the Venezualan song Moliendo Cafe, and Chris Gill’s devious German captain raises worried laughter with his declarations.