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The Hobyahs!

In the summer of 1985-6 this Australian panto played at the National Theatre in Melbourne for 42 performances (afternoon and evening performances) to critical acclaim… and audiences who attended over and over again. (One group of about twenty local youngsters were so smitten that they found part-time jobs so they could attend every day!)

The show was based loosely on the old folk tale published in the Victorian Education Department’s Second Book… the standard reader for all second graders in State Schools from the 1930s to 1950. My mate, fellow former primary school teacher and business partner, Greg Simmons, and I wrote the show in late 1974 for two reasons:

First, we lived in the beautiful Bass Coast region of Victoria — then the #2 tourist destination in Australia after the Great Barrier Reef — and we and our wives belonged to the very active local Wonthaggi Theatrical Group, which had purchased the local theatre from the NSW-based Miner’s Union at a very low price (it was the Union’s last asset in Victoria after closure of the State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi in 1968). But strikes by electricity unions throughout 1974 had forced the cancellation of several productions, or resulted in financial losses. The Group was struggling to pay its mortgage for the year.

Josh and Marnie

Second, my children, Marnie 4 and Josh 2, had lost interest in live theatre for children because the holiday pantos I’d taken them to see in Melbourne had been written by professionals who wrote for television — and while the kids found the productions visually spectacular, they didn’t really involve the audiences. The action would stop for big production numbers — songs and dance — and, once the younger kids lost track of the plot, they’d make so much noise that it soon became impossible for older kids to stay focused and, before long, nobody could follow what was happening on stage. So I sat down to write something that Marnie and Josh would watch, avidly.

I should mention here that I’d learned and honed these skills writing and directing 15-minute travelling Roadshows for annual festivals/competitions at our Church, since the age of 15. These involved 4-6 productions from different parts of Melbourne and they were governed by strict guidelines — they had to be original (scripts and music), they had to be 15 minutes duration, they had to have a 5-minute entr’acte in front of the curtains to allow scenery to be set up on stage, and they had to be able to be wrapped up and moved to however many venues were involved (typically 4-6 halls/theatres in a night).

They were an excellent training ground for aspiring writers! By the time Lynne and I married we’d worked together as a team for 2-3 years as the regional Drama Directors for most of Melbourne and had carved a reputation for ourselves in interstate Roadshows competitions as well.

Greg and I were working in marketing (real marketing), advertising and PR for local industries and community organisations in the region, and we knew that the population in the summer months ballooned from fewer than 30,000 to more than 300,000. We came up with a plan to produce and present a pantomime for 2-3 weeks in January 1975 to take advantage of that increased population — and its holiday spending — to help the Theatre Group earn enough to make its annual mortgage payment.

The Group’s committee accepted our proposal — and Greg and I were given the job of writing the script and music, producing and directing (and promoting) the whole project in less than three weeks!

The show was a HUGE triumph and started a tradition of summer pantos, which Greg and I wrote — and our production company co-produced with the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group — to help pay the annual mortgage.

We also staged a 10th anniversary production which ran from Boxing Day, 1985 to mid-January 1986, with the star of Channel 10’s national Saturday morning children’s show, “The Early Birds Show” (and former rock star), Darryl Cotton. (I’d known Darryl since 1966, when I was art director of Australia’s first rock magazine.) We opened at the same time as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats”and had more publicity.

The media theatre critics gave us rave reviews and the show developed its own unique sub-culture very quickly. As an after-thought, I hired a videographer to record the final matinee performance. That’s this video production now available on Youtube.

John Counsel
June 2018

DVD Cover (not available)

Factoid 1: The production featured several Aspies in the cast and band.

Factoid 2: This production was also one of the first professional roles for Hollywood star Radha Mitchell as one of the Hobyahs. She was about 14-15 years old.

Radha Mitchell as Melinda Robacheau in Melinda and Melinda.
Radha Mitchell

What the critics said about “The Hobyahs”

Clark Forbes in The Age newspaper

Cuchulainn’s Review

This is the tenth anniversary season of this rollicking panto, at the National Theatre, Melbourne, in 1986, starring the ever-youthful Darryl Cotton as Captain Lightning.

A production by The Children’s Theatre Company of Victoria, it’s a show that will thrill kids of all ages — even pre-schoolers.

John Counsel and Greg Simmons, both former primary school teachers, wrote the clever script to appeal to everyone. Littlies as young as three can follow the story purely on the action, which is based on the attention span of a 3-year-old. Older, school-age kids can follow the dialogue and the constant jokes and sight gags, while adults will enjoy a whole different level of entertainment through irony, humour and subtle innuendo. (It goes right over the kids’ heads!)

Anyone familiar with the original story from the Victorian Second Book, a reader for second grade in primary schools from 1937 to 1952, may wonder how such a grisly, terrifying tale translates to the stage without scaring the wits out of young audiences. The answer is simple: the basic plot remains the same, except for the absence of little yellow dog Dingo, his dismemberment and reconstruction — which would present some legal and logistical problems! — and the extraordinary level of audience participation.

I attended the final dress rehearsal, along with a small, but enthralled, audience, and I was transported back to my early days as an avid panto fan at the Tivoli and Princess Theatres in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Hobyahs themselves, wonderfully played by two teams of young dancers from the National Theatre Ballet School Performing Group, are menacing, but are rarely seen and remain remote from the audience. No young audience members were terrified by them… in fact, the vague scariness seemed to heighten their enjoyment of the show enormously. As the program noted, most children’s stories — especially scary ones — were created by the kids themselves. Even the Brothers Grimm merely collected and edited them… they didn’t actually write them. All kids love to be scared, as long as it’s safe. The Hobyahs themselves are talked about more than they’re seen in this version of the old folk tale. (Once only in Act One, twice only in Act Two, then multiple times in Act Three.)

Captain Lightning (played by Darryl Cotton) is a dashing, over-grown 10-year-old who seems to spend most of the show blissfully unaware of the events taking place around him, much to the noisy frustration of the audience. Amelia Peppercorn is a heart-winner with a delightful stage manner and voice, and Barney — a show stopper with his soft-shoe dancing — turns out to be the real hero!

Trooper Trott, the bumbling, bragging nemesis of the hero, is played with overblown gusto by co-writer, John Counsel. His constant arguments with the young audience (“There are no such things as Hobyahs!”), and witty banter with Mr and Mrs Peppercorn, are a feature of the show’s regular audience participation.

Trooper Trott’s bad-tempered prize draws after each interval are also a highlight of the show for the kids. Autographed posters, personalised Arrest Warrants and more make for extra fun and enjoyment… entry is free through the prize draw bin in the foyer.

Hen-pecked Mr Peppercorn steals hearts, especially with his jug band song, while his domineering spouse — far more terrifying than any Hobyahs! — is a constant source of gratuitous advice, bluster and hilarity. ‘Her’ strip tease act before bed time is hysterically funny, and the repartee between the pair is a never-ending source of chuckles and side-splitting laughter throughout the show.

The show has three acts and two intervals, and each act is more exciting — and longer! — than the one before it. There are signs in the foyer, and warnings in the excellent program, reminding kids to visit the toilet during interval to avoid any embarrassing ‘accidents’ caused by a combination of excitement, involvement and refusal to leave the theatre for any reason once the action begins.

No review of this hilarious production can be considered complete without mentioning the Gloomy Gullies Gala Goodtime Orchestra, a terrific band that sits right on the stage and is an integral part of the show. The music is wonderful and encompasses an amazing range of styles, from Irish jig to haunting ballads, jug band and jazz to punk rock… these talented, versatile musicians handle it all in their stride, while alternatively losing or hijacking the plot!

As a long-disappointed fan of traditional children’s panto, I have to say that The Hobyahs is, without question, the best I’ve seen in a generation or more. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s noisy (the kids are right into it from the moment Captain Lightning appears in a clap of thunder and flash of lightning at the start of the show), it’s hilariously funny, and it appeals to every age group. The songs are foot-tapping and heart-melting and the actors are totally convincing and in constant engagement and dialogue with their audiences.

When you walk into the theatre and spy the Peppercorn family’s hut in the Gloomy Gullies, with the Hobyahs’ cave to one side of the stage and the band on the other, sunlight trickling through treetops, you can sense that you’re about to experience something special.

You won’t be disappointed.

The programs: It’s been a long time since I saw a program with so much appeal for children. Full colour throughout, it includes colour photos of the characters and actors, background information and words to songs for singing along. And at just $2 each, every kid can afford one. The large fold-out poster in the centre will be a feature on bedroom walls for months to come.

Cuchulainn’s Rating:

  — Yes… SIX stars out of five!

This is a show you shouldn’t miss. Only the cruellest parents would even think of not taking their kids to see what will be one of the entertainment highlights of their young lives.

And if you think I’m being uncharacteristically enthusiastic, I am. It’s been a long, long time since I enjoyed any show as much as this one. Congratulations to The Children’s Theatre Company of Victoria… you have an absolute winner on your hands!


What audiences thought of “The Hobyahs”

Parent Letter: 1986

Thank you for your production of “The Hobyahs”. Being the mother of 5 and 7 year old daughters, I’ve been to many “kids” shows over the last five years.

Without doubt, until The Hobyahs, I’ve been disappointed in them all — they’ve not involved the children and the children have not really enjoyed anything very much.

Throughout the Hobyahs the children were involved and with great enthusiasm on their part. They loved the whole production.

We took another 5 year old and a 3 year old along with us — they loved it too!

After the show was over, I got many thank-yous for taking them, so thought I’d let you know how we appreciate a decent “panto”.

I have a friend who does theatre production and for a few years I have bemoaned the fact that there’s nothing decent around for kids. (I keep remembering the pantos I went to as a child — singalong, etc.)

We loved the live band, theme music for each character, dame, hobyahs (I remember that reader) and the general production.

Thank you for treating us to something wonderful!

Mrs S Macdonald

PS Thought the National Theatre Ballet School Performing Group as the Hobyahs were excellent, too… and the kids loved Trooper Trott’s gun!!

[Note: Trooper Trott’s gun barrel was made from a length of plumber’s spring with a piece of dowel inserted that left the last ten centimetres drooping and wobbling.]

Parent Letter 2:

I am a great fan of Darryl Cotton, and I never miss watching him on the Early Bird Show every Saturday. I had never had the opportunity of seeing him perform live, so when I heard about him being in The Hobyahs, I made up my mind to go. I booked two tickets for the first night’s performance and my niece went with me. It was great seeing Darryl, but everyone else in the show was really terrific. I think it was great how you all played along with the audience and, as they say, if the people on stage look relaxed and are having fun, the audience will be the same.

My niece and I had so much fun that the next day I went and booked another two tickets for January 4. I got such a surprise at how much the show had changed in just two nights because, even though the story didn’t change, you all changed a few things which made the show even funnier.

I was thrilled after that performance as one of the ladies gave me a copy of Captain Lightning’s Arrest Warrant that Darryl asked her to write out for my scrap book.

I also went around to the stage door and met Darryl as he was leaving. I told him I was going to come again for the third time. He said come on the last night as it will be even funnier. So when I went home I asked my mother, my cousin from Geelong and one of my other nieces to come. The next day I booked five tickets for January 18, but didn’t notice that the time had changed from 8:15 pm to 7:00 pm. We arrived on the 18th just as the Hobyahs were singing “Barney, we’re gonna eat you up!”.

But it didn’t matter, as your daughter (Marnie, managing the box office) was so nice. She said she was sorry that she hadn’t been able to get in touch to tell me about the changed time. She gave me a free program, five complimentary tickets to the last show on January 25, and we were allowed to go in and watch the last of the show that night.

I’m glad we came on the last night. I laughed so much that I was in tears. That would have to have been the funniest show I’ve seen in all my life.

You all should be given credit for a really great show. I’m really sorry I can’t see it again, as on all four occasions it was different. I only hope you can bring out your next panto and, maybe, put the Hobyahs on again in the future.

I was talking to your daughter and told her that I had sent away for The Hobyahs sound track. She said the people making them are not sure if they will release it. I really hope they do, as all the songs and music from the show sounded wonderful, and it would be a real shame to let such beautiful songs be forgotten.

Miss J Davis


More letters from parents…

From: Rosie Brock

I took three friends with me on Thursday night. It was a magnificent night’s entertainment – superb acting – too good for suburbia – so professional, colourful, personal and delicious. We laughed and yelled with the best of them.

Congratulations on a superb cast and presentation.


From: Karelle Berry

Loved it!!! I took my 8 year old daughter and 6 year old son who both really enjoyed it. It was funny and scary and sweet and funny and scary some more. The cast and band were incredibly engaging and it was fantastic to be so involved. It was a very enjoyable experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone…

Berry Family Boronia

From: Mary Chiodo

I took my two children to see this pantomime today (Boxing Day) and it was FABULOUS!

At the first interval the little girl in front of us asked her Mum if it was the end of the show. Her mother assured her it wasn’t and asked her why she was so concerned. “Oh, I don’t want it to ever, ever end!” sighed the tiny tot ecstatically.

All the way home, the kids were plaguing me to take them again. We’ll definitely be doing so, and taking a whole group with us. That group discount is terrific value.

We also loved the photo session after the show. What a great idea!

If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss it. It has everything. Wonderful!

Mary C Kensington

From: Kerrie Argent

I have to agree with everything written so far. Mary (my sister-in-law) was so excited by the show that I had to see for myself, so I took my two children this afternoon and it really was fabulous. The kids were playing “hobyahs” right up until their bed time!

I had no idea a children’s show could be so funny for adults. My sides were aching after the second act. Mrs Peppercorn’s “Peppercorn Punk” song was an absolute hoot.

I’m a professional musician and I fell in love with the music, especially the two songs sung by Amelia. The band was also brilliant.


Trooper Trott’s drooping gun barrel was another constant giggle, and his manner and make-up reminded me very much of “Aggro” the puppet on TV. There were so many things to entertain us, and so many things happening all the time.

I have to mention the children who played the hobyahs, too. They were wonderful and their costumes were so good. Everyone associated with this show should feel justly proud. It’s hard to find the words to describe what a good feeling it leaves you with.

Thank you to everyone. Now my hubby feels very jealous at being left out and is talking about taking the children by himself. Not without me, he won’t!

Kerrie Argent Melton

From: Marg Sargeant

I remembered the story from my school days and went on Friday evening. I was surprised that there were almost no children in the audience, it was nearly all adults.

I laughed so hard I was almost ill. The “off the cuff” repartee was brilliant and geared to the adult audience and the audience participation was incredible.

I have never seen anything like it before. It’s a wonderful show for any age group. There wasn’t dull moment all night.

I’ll be back next week with my grandchildren. I would not want them to miss this experience.

M. Sargeant Camberwell

From: G. Enticott

I went on Friday afternoon and there were lots of really young children in the audience, including my own. They LOVED it. (So did I!)

Honestly, I’ve been so disillusioned with children’s shows over the years, but the Hobyahs has restored my faith. There was so much going on that we never knew what to expect next. One minute we were watching in alarm as the Hobyahs carried of someone new, the next minute we were laughing hysterically at some nonsense from the Peppercorns or the Trooper, or joining in a foot-tapping song with that marvelous orchestra.

Please do another show like this soon. (Is there a sequel? I do hope so.)

Gaye E. Wantirna South

Hobyahs Game Board (merchandise)
Game cards (top: fronts/bottom: backs)

©2018 John Counsel. All rights reserved.


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