Tuesday, September 26, 2017

In Real Life

Anni Finsterer and Elizabeth Nabben
in In Real Life by Julian Larnach
Photo by Phil Erbacher

In Real Life by Julian Larnach.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Playhouse, Sydney, September 15-October 15, 2017.

Director – Luke Rogers; Production Designer – Georgia Hopkins; Sound Designer & Composer – James Brown; Lighting Designer – Sian James-Holland
Theresa – Anni Finsterer; Eva (Theresa’s daughter in various incarnations) – Elizabeth Nabben
Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 23

In Real Life is a new Australian theatre piece, 90 minutes long, a project originated by the Griffin Theatre Company with development support from the University of Sydney’s Performance Studies Department.  Julian Larnach has also previously been Resident Playwright at the Australian Theatre for Young People.

The result, I think, is an interesting take on our world moving into ubiquitous electronic communication, raising issues which will stimulate discussion for young people.  The outline is that Theresa’s teenage daughter leaves home after the common event of disagreeing with her mother, and never makes contact again.  Perhaps she is dead, but Theresa will never believe that and tries to find Eva, through social media (but discovers that it is illegal to extract her daughter’s details without her daughter’s explicit permission).  She sees Eva in every young woman, including her company secretary (she makes and has become wealthy selling The Drum, combining everything Apple, Google and Facebook can do into an intelligent personal communication device); other officials; an AI robot made to look like Eva which learns to be like Eva as her mother reveals information it can record; and finally adopts her young house cleaner who had been friends with Eva, and whose mother has now died.

Both performers handle their roles very effectively, but the play will need a great deal more development to become more than an interesting idea.  In the end Theresa settles her loss of her daughter by seeing Eva in her invention, The Drum, as if it can replace her loss.  This is a neat idea, but that’s all it is as yet.

So, as an older person, I see In Real Life as a work in progress; but I can see it as worthwhile at this stage to set young people thinking – more about their relationships with their parents than about how technology is taking over our lives, the theme emphasised in the promotion material.

To take up that theme more fully, we need to become engaged with Eva from her point of view rather than only through her mother’s or the maid’s eyes after her disappearance.  Who was her father and why does he not even rate a mention in the current In Real Life?  In real life, why does Eva decide to leave home – perhaps as an escape from her mother’s overwhelming fascination with technology and her ambition in business which leave Eva out of the family’s emotional picture.

To understand and feel for the family so affected by AI technology, the play might be restructured, with the major part showing the mother, the father, the daughter and the cleaner’s daughter from Eva’s birth (when her mother’s business was just beginning) to the climactic point where Eva  feels she has no choice but to leave.  Then we may see the tragic consequence of the mother’s so complete absorption into the new world of technology as she tries but inevitably fails to regain contact with her daughter, and is left with nothing but The Drum pulsating. 

The drama I suggest would take a stand:  don’t allow our fascination with technology, and the accompanying sense of personal power, cause us to destroy our humanity.  Variations on this theme have been played out in theatres since ancient times: modern electronic communication technology is just the latest of our destructive fascinations.  In Real Life as it stands brings the issue to mind, but I would like to see it become the powerful emotional experience in the theatre it could be, focussing on Eva’s life leading up to what for Theresa is the unforeseen tragedy of her child deliberately leaving her.  Maybe the play could then be titled The Drum.

This gives the importance of the issue a Shakespearean dimension.  Theresa then becomes a parallel to King Lear, causing the loss of her only child because of her lack of awareness until she realises too late.  Many older people will understand this experience, while it would give even more to the young for discussion.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Dinner by Moira Buffini

Dinner by Moira Buffini.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, September 11 – October 28, 2017.

Director – Imara Savage; Designer – Elizabeth Gadsby; Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper; Composer & Sound Designer – Max Lyandvert
Paige – Caroline Brazier; Lars (Paige’s husband) – Sean O’Shea; Hal – Brandon Burke; Sian (Hal’s  wife) – Claire Lovering; Wynne (just separated from her politician husband, who fails to arrive for dinner) – Rebecca Massey;  Mark (an accidental guest) – Aleks Mikic; Waiter – Bruce Spence

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 23

Middle-class English intellectual flummery for Dinner, I thought.  The audience appreciated the skilled acting, bringing back the performers for a third time, but there was not much of significance to talk about after 90 minutes’ highly contrived theatre.  There were jokes and comic play that mentioned ‘issues’, and some scenes that were so extremely farcical they naturally caused extended laughter.  But issues mentioned for comic effect are nothing without development of ideas. 

The device of Paige’s game, where each person at Dinner had to speak for two minutes about a topic she had prepared secretly for each with the intention of tripping him or her up into fooling themselves, might have worked except that what developed, if not exactly predictable, seemed not unexpected after we had laughed, and the tone went up a level of farce rather than into seriousness.

Maybe the set design should make me think again.  While taking our seats, we found ourselves reflected in a rectangular section of the stage curtain.  When the curtain went up, the whole stage for dinner in an obviously upmarket house was behind a transparent drop.  The actors voices were heard over the sound system.  So this was obviously the ‘fourth wall’, meaning I presume that we now know that this play is not reality…as if we didn’t know this already.

The only use of this device followed (much later and at no particularly significant point as far as I could devine) the mention by Sian of her fascination with toilet door graffiti, which she quoted: FUCK SHIT UP.  She asked the self-admittedly failed artist (who had exhibited her detailed painting of her politician husband’s genitals and wondered why he was concerned about his electoral reputation) whether this graffiti was ‘Art’?

Paige interjects that it is ‘Literature’.  Laughs all round.  Ages later, the cast freeze (ie out of character?), move downstage with black felt pens in hand, and proceed to inscribe FUCK SHIT UP, in large block mirror writing so we can read it, on the inside of the transparent drop.  After while, a man with cleaning equipment (not a member of the cast) appears and cleans the ‘offending’ words off.

I leave you to consider the level of humour this is supposed to represent, or any intended depth of significance.  I thought it was the epitome of weak undergraduacy, while Britain over many decades has produced far better lunacy than this.

Another apparently significant device was for everyone to freeze occasionally, when someone had said something that others thought they shouldn’t.  Of course this could work in a serious drama as characters and the audience are forced to work out what they can say or do next; and it works a treat in the right place at the right time in a meaningful comedy: when Eliza says “Not bloody likely” in Pygmalion, for example.  But in Dinner everything simply stopped on the other side from us of the transparent wall, for quite a long time (it felt long, at least), and then action continued as if nothing had happened.  Maybe this was meant to be a comment on the nature of the wealthy who ignore anything they don’t want to hear.  But this idea is just my invention.  I could not support this as a theme from any evidence in the play.

In due course, Paige has the lugubrious silent waiter she found on the internet, threaten to cut her husband’s throat, and then actually stab her to death.  The only surprise is that the waiter at last speaks, refusing accept the tens of thousands of pounds Paige has paid him, taking just a waiter’s pay.

Maybe this is a joke about, or maybe is meant to seriously  represent the dignity of the working and (from Mike’s story)  the criminal class.  But the dead body remains slumped on the floor, nobody moves.  Then the pizzas (which Lars had ordered hours before to avoid eating Paige’s serving of living lobsters boiled in our presence) arrive… to laughter all round.  End of play.

So there you are: middle class morality for your delectation.  Of course there’s a huge amount more details than I can cover here, but they wouldn’t add anything to the ‘complexity’ of flavours in this Dinner.  You could call it a cold collation of funny theatrical devices, but no real warmth or flavour in the humour.  Not the fault of STC’s maitre d’, nor the designers of the menu, nor the cooks (and certainly not the waiter) – it’s just that the author hadn’t done the shopping very well.

The Wharf Revue

Sydney Theatre Company

The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
until 23 September 2017
Reviewed by Samara Purnell

Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Photo by Samara Purnell

When certain individuals take the stage in politics, most of the western world holds its breath in anticipation, clenching just a little at the prospect of nuclear war. On the other hand, the Wharf Revue team must lick their lips in orgasmic bliss at the goldmine of eminently send-up-able characters, potential parodies and a script that practically writes itself.

Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott and Jonathan Biggins are joined by Blazey Best in a foray into egomaniacs sporting ridiculous hairstyles, and unmistakable affectations in “The Patriotic Rag”.
Guardians of the Galaxy Poll was hilarious and riotous, with Best’s Jacqui Lambie, as a Wonder from Down Under, leading a team of not-so-superheroes, lured to an abandoned Chinese restaurant in Belconnen. After being confronted by The Lizard of Oz - Tony Abbott, in green unitard and the ubiquitous red budgie-smugglers that have surely seen more mileage in Wharf Revues than our former PM ever gave them, a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” ensues, which was very well executed, as was the choreography in general this year. Best also gave James Ashby a going-over, accompanying Forsythe’s Pauline Hanson, with pin-point accuracy, well appreciated by the audience. Best is a good all-round performer and impersonator, but the skit with Julie Bishop in her “active wear” could have been omitted.

John Clarke was given a farewell in a Clarke and Bryan Dawe skit, at the Pearly Gates. The impersonations and timing were spot-on.

Historical speeches had been given a Donald Trump “make-over”, the result cleverly allowing the actors to simultaneously impersonate two figures. They maintained the “integrity” of their primary roles, with Louis XVI and Vlad the Impaler very amusing.

And of course, the Trump card, a variety night with the “POTUS”. Biggins as Trump, sporting a follicularly generous wig, had the President’s facial expressions and strut absolutely perfected. The Wharf team generally tends to stop short of utter farce and caricature, so no oompa loompa orange here. Vladimir Putin (Forsythe) joined Trump and his world leaders with an Ella Fitzgerald inspired “Combustible, untrustable, fine bromance”. (A jazz rendition of Putin on the Ritz would have been perfect about now!). Scott’s Kim Jong-un in “You can’t Stop The Kim!” gave us a disco take on imminent nuclear disaster.

Phillip Scott as Kim Jong-un
Photo by Samara Purnell

Although many of the one-liners and visual gags, such as the entry of “The Donald” are basically dad jokes, they still work.

It appears not even “Strayan” comedy is safe from political correctness now, as the glaring omissions of the same-sex marriage survey and Hanson’s burqa-in-the-Senate stunt begs the question: Has even the final frontier of comedy fallen victim to PC gone mad? There was a distinct feel that the audience had succumbed to it as well, almost nervous to laugh at some skits. Perhaps on opening night where the audience was comprised of media and politicians, this was more pronounced.

Toward the end of the show, some dialogue was lost due to the sound levels being low, but also the audience enthusiasm appeared to ebb slightly.

Once again we marvelled at the talent, wit and skill of the Wharf Revue team who often write, rework and memorise skits in mere days. Scott farewells the Wharf after this season concludes. Hopefully we will all be here this time next year to see what a new cast offers. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

ASSASSINS - Hayes Theatre Company

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim -Book by John Weidman
Directed by Dean Bryant - Choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth
Musical Direction by Andrew Worboys - Set and Costumes designed by Alicia Clements
Lighting designed by Ross Graham - Sound designed by Nick Walker
Presented by Hayes Theatre Company

Hayes Theatre 19th September – 22nd October 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

"Assassins" cast  

Stephen Sondheim always expected that the content of this dark musical would disturb people. He intended that it should. He could not have predicted however, that, nearly 30 years later, at a time when two world leaders compete to convince us that the only way to solve their disagreement is nuclear war, the content of his musical would resonate even more powerfully.

His characters are a group of historical misfits, all with the same idea, that the only way to solve their problems is to kill a president. Some were successful, other’s not so. But the real shock of this show is the guilty pleasure derived from the entertaining way the dilemma of each of these unfortunates is depicted.

Dean Bryant’s brilliant production has the action taking place among the detritus of a decaying amusement park, complete with carnival lights, a rusting dodgem car and discarded merry-go-round horse. The audience enters the theatre to discover a sleeping figure. On his lap is a book, with the word ‘Trump’ prominently displayed on the cover, and a haranguing political speech emanating from the radio by his side.

As the various characters are introduced by the balladeer (Maxwell Simon, who later doubles, rivetingly, as Lee Harvey Oswald), to the upbeat “Everybody’s Got the Right”, each is handed a gun, with the promise that it will solve their problems.

David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth 

The mood changes with the entrance of David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot Abraham Lincoln during a theatre performance. Campbell, charismatic and almost unrecognisable in wig and facial hair, dominates the stage in all his scenes, particularly during “The Ballad of John Wilkes Booth”, and later in a chilling scene in which he manipulates and coerces the hesitant Lee Harvey Oswald into killing John F. Kennedy.
Campbell is surrounded by an outstanding ensemble which includes Bobby Fox, compelling as the wild-eyed Charles Guiteau, whose failed attempt to assassinate President Garfield, led to his execution at the gallows.  Martin Crewes is an intense Giuseppe Zangara, driven to desperation by stomach pains.

Bobby Fox (Charles Guiteau) and Jason Kos (Leon Czolosz) in "Assassins"

Hannah Fredericksen captures the spaced out fragility of Charles Manson devotee, ‘Squeaky” Fromme) whose failed attempt to kill President Ford, brought her in to contact with the similarly incompetent Sara Jane Moore (portrayed by Kate Cole with delicious comic malevolence), who had the same target in her sights but only managed to kill her dog.

Dressed in a tacky red Santa Clause costume, Justin Smith is unsettling as Samuel Byck who spends his time writing critiques to Leonard Bernstein, while Laura Bunting (Emma Goldman), Connor Crawford (John Hinkley Jnr.), Jason Kos (Leon Czolgosz), and  Rob McDougall (The Proprietor) all provide memorable performances in a cast in which there are no weak links.

Connor Crawford (John Kinkley Jnr)  and Hannah Fredricksen (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme) in "Assassins" 

Superb singing, together with excellent diction and admirable sound design, allows Andrew Worboy’s gutsy band to do full justice to Sondheim’s surprisingly accessible score without compromising his brilliant lyrics. Outstanding lighting design, coupled with the shiny stage surface and Andrew Hallsworth’s inventive choreography fascinates the eye into believing that everything is taking place in a much larger space than the tiny Hayes Theatre.

“Assassins” is certainly not your usual musical romp. This superbly staged realisation of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most disturbing musicals challenges and entertains in equal measure, making it a brilliant addition to the list of outstanding productions by the Hayes Theatre Company. It should not be missed by anyone seeking an exceptional music theatre experience.

                                       Photos: Phil Erbacher

This review also appears in Australian Art Review.  www.artsreview.com.au

Friday, September 22, 2017

Victoria & Abdul

Review by © Jane Freebury

With a cheeky play on names, Victoria & Abdul hints that Queen Victoria so missed her late husband and consort Prince Albert that she looked for ways to replace him. The title of the 1997 film in which she befriended another servant of the royal household earlier on in her widowhood was similarly suggestive. Her Majesty, Mrs Brown.

Was Queen Victoria, widowed from her early forties and mother to nine adult children, still looking for some companionship in her sixties? Maybe, maybe not. Centuries earlier, Queen Elizabeth I spent a lifetime on the throne without a consort, and this is still a subject of endless fascination.

Victoria & Abdul is set during the last 15 years of the reign of Queen Victoria and is an encore in the role from Judi Dench, who was also 'Mrs Brown'. It begins more or less the moment she claps eyes on Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) as he backs out of her dining hall.

Under strict instructions not to look at the Queen when presenting her with a commemorative coin from India, the reason for his being at court, curiosity gets the better of Abdul and he steals a glance during retreat.

The elderly queen has no interest in her meal or her companions, but she perks up a bit when the jelly arrives at the end of a long and tedious meal, and then looks back at the newcomer, registering his height, his grace and dark eyes.

It might have finished there, had Abdul not seized this window of opportunity to regale the bored and listless queen with stories about India, a place she would never visit because her advisors feared she risked assassination there.

He feeds her interest, extolling the sublime beauty of the Taj Mahal (not wrong there), and that delicious queen of fruit, the mango, and at her request instructs her in Urdu. However, he lets her believe that he is a Hindu when he is a Muslim, with a wife or two back home in Agra.

As the odd couple spend more and more time together, Victoria’s entourage is apoplectic with indignation at the Queen’s choice of companion. Filmed from unflattering low-angles, her puffed-up flunkeys – Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), her son and heir Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) - just cannot make the Queen see she is provoking a minor scandal. Just as she did with John Brown, though there may have been grounds for scandal there.

Victoria just won’t allow Abdul’s dark skin and low rank get in the way of a good friendship. In the midst of a racist, classist milieu, she stands tall.

If only this film had explored the personality of this surprising monarch. And if only it had delved into the way the British behaved towards the colonials, rather than given everything the light comic opera treatment.

In this environment, the occasional acerbic comment from Abdul’s companion, Mohammed (Adele Akhtar), who is disconsolate in foggy, damp England and unable to turn his circumstances to advantage, is very welcome. So these people use extract from cow to make jelly? Barbarians! All very funny, but we don't hear enough from him.

Was Victoria a bit of a flirt? You get the distinct impression that she enjoyed unsettling her retinue, and enjoyed a bit of power play.

Under Stephen Frears’ direction, the diminutive Dench is in her imperious element as Victoria, the woman who once ruled around a quarter of the world. With pale blue eyes in locked-on stare and commanding if small in stature, Dench is the best reason to see Victoria & Abdul. Fazal is fine as Abdul, though it's an undemanding role.

Victoria & Abdul has its moments but the fascinating backstory is still to be told. The friendship between the first British Empress of India and her Muslim servant deserved more in-depth treatment than the light and breezy comic touch it gets here.

3 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog

Summer of the 17th Doll

Chloe Bar at Young & Jackson's Hotel, Melbourne
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler.  Pigeonhole Theatre at Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, The Q, September 20-30, 2017.

Director – Karen Vickery; Set Designer – Michael Sparks; Costume Designer – Fiona Leach; Lighting Designer – Cynthia Jolley-Rogers; Props – Imogen Thomas; Sound/Composer – Matt Webster.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Bubba – Zoe Priest; Pearl – Andrea Close; Olive – Jordan Best; Barney – Dene Kermond; Emma – Liz Bradley; Roo – Craig Alexander; Johnnie – Alex Hoskison

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 21

Pigeonhole Theatre presents an excellent production of this significant Australian classic.  Because of our current political turmoil, Lawler’s 1955 play – examining male mateship and the nature of marriage in what we would now call ‘fly in – fly out’ workplace arrangements – is essential viewing. 

On the second night, the audience was disappointing: certainly not for our response to the performance, but only because the 346-seat theatre was no more than one-third full.  Maybe people think of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as the classroom study which it has become, but like Shakespeare’s plays, Lawler’s work is full of real life, from Pearl’s opening put-down of Bubba – making you wonder about how she treats her own daughter who is about the same age as Bubba – to Olive’s absolute refusal to marry Roo and the complete collapse of their seventeen-year-long relationship as Roo destroys the last tinsel kewpie doll and goes off fruitpicking with Barney.

USA readers will recognise the similarity here with Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie.  Whether Lawler was deliberately referencing that play, made so famous in the 1950 movie starring  Gertrude Lawrence (Amanda), Jane Wyman (Laura), Arthur Kennedy (Tom) and Kirk Douglas (Jim), I don’t know. 

But the device of the ‘gentleman caller’ and the tragic destruction of the delicate symbols of a woman’s hope (accidentally as Williams’ Laura and Jim dance by candle light before he announces his engagement to someone else; and accidentally as Lawler’s Roo and Barney fight in Olive’s lounge room, re-establishing their mateship but leaving Olive devastated) is theatrically as powerful in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as in The Glass Menagerie.

Please don’t watch the 1959 movie of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LY4o7vMpd6s  ] with Ernest Borgnine as Roo, Anne Baxter as Olive, John Mills as Barney, Angela Lansbury as Pearl, Vincent Ball as Johnnie Dowd, Ethel Gabriel as Emma, Janette Craig as Bubba.  For a start it’s set in Sydney, but as Michael Sparks clearly knows in his set design (quite similar to the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1977 production) this play is definitely in Melbourne.

In the 1959 fil’m, the male characters speak imitation Australian, while the women are just too English.  Lawler may have started the new naturalism in Australian playwriting, but maybe it needed a cringe reaction to the colonial imperialism in this British/Australian production to help stir the Marvellous Melbourne new wave of David Williamson in the 1960-70 period to get our real accents on stage.

But even the 1977 production had the women a bit too refined and glamorous for these old Australian barmaids at the local pub (not at Young & Jackson’s even, with the famous nude painting of Chloe https://www.youngandjacksons.com.au/chloe ). 

Pigeonhole’s casting is perfect, both for the characters' physical features and for the actors’ characterisation skills.  In the 1950s, after 17 years in the bar and cane cutting in Queensland, Olive, Roo and Barney began their lives back in the Australia of the 1930s, and Olive’s mother Emma in World War I.  They speak and behave with the raucous accents I remember when I arrived in this godforsaken country in 1955.  I was 14, and recognise the young woman Bubba (real name Cathy), just breaking into that 1950s sense of suburban refinement as high school education had begun to spread around the country after World War II.  As for Pearl, with her own 18-year-old daughter ... well, I remember those mothers of constant judgement, protecting their daughters from working class boys (I was one myself, not yet imbued with middleclass morality).

In other words, director Karen Vickery got it right.  Barney is short, muscular, bouncy, perceptive, laughing at every opportunity and drinking constantly to cover up his insecurities – yet surprisingly effective sexually, even with prim Pearl.  Roo (short for Reuben, not Kangaroo) is large, a figure of physical strength now slightly past it, not too bright but trying to do the right thing, while also sensitive to being slighted.  Olive is the no-nonsense mix of self-reliant woman running her life (but not always her similarly endowed mother), while needing a man in her life – but only on her terms.  Bubba is not just ‘bubbly’ as she was as a three-year-old from next door, but is aware of a special feeling for the two men and wanting now to establish herself sexually.

Whereas Pearl knows where she stands as she leaves the house and the play after her attempt to possibly replace her dead husband with the highly unsuitable Barney, Roo knows he has to stick with the gang even though he is no longer their leader, Barney knows he must have Roo to keep himself on the steady and will have to accept that his old annual partner Nancy is and will remain married, and even Olive knows she has no choice but to put behind her Roo’s failure to match or even understand her needs, the play leaves Cathy (no longer Bubba) with no clear idea of where she can go from here. 

The success of this production is to make the play more than Olive’s play, or Olive and Roo’s play, or Roo and Barney’s play, or Pearl’s play: this is Cathy’s play – leaving us to wonder about her future, as a young woman coming out into adult life with role models failing around her.  This is one way in which this play, and particularly this production, is significant.

It is, as I alluded to at the top, also highly relevant to the present arguments about marriage equality.  Why is it that Australia is so late to decide at the political level to make marriage for same-sex couples as normal as it is for opposite-sex couples?  So many other ‘modern’ countries have come to the party, even some whose culture we might expect to be a barrier.

Lawler got it, 60 years ago.  Roo and Barney are effectively married, though probably without sexual activity between them.  Pearl wants sex and to be married to an appropriate man, perhaps even if she doesn’t love him.  Olive wants a loving sexual relationship with a man without marriage, so that she can keep control of her life without being controlled by her man.  Johnnie Dowd offers Cathy a chance (to go to the races for an afternoon) but she realises that was only a ploy more to do with Johnny showing his power over Roo, and was set up by Barney.

So, Bubba, growing up to be Cathy, is left absolutely confused.  Her education at school seems to have been insignificant on personal and sexual relationships; her bringing-up in Emma’s house seems to have given her the old woman’s competence and a sense of responsibility; her experience of Olive (and Nancy’s) seasonal relationship with Roo and Barney has left her in the position of a child, and the seventeenth year with Pearl replacing Nancy and Roo’s leadership ending on the cane fields up north, leaves her with no confidence about how to go about the next stage of her life.  She seems to seek something like love rather than mere sex, but plumps for Olive’s model rather than Nancy’s, which was to ‘escape’ as Pearl puts it, into marriage.

When I read the play, all those many years ago, I only half-recognised the nature of the tragedy.  Today the voluntary non-binding survey so-called plebiscite on changing the marriage act to not only include ‘a man and a woman’ but any form of ‘same-sex’ couple highlights Bubba-Cathy’s confusion.

It is because this production is so well directed and acted that I think it is essential viewing.  It won’t tell you which way to vote, but lets you into seeing the issues from angles that you may not have been aware of before, especially from the points of view of specifically Australian men and women.

Take advantage of Pigeonhole Theatre’s offering while you have the opportunity.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll - Pigeonhole Theatre

Review by John Lombard

Toxic masculinity, emotional intelligence, even bromance - Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a play unlocked a modern awareness of gender politics, with Pigeonhole Theatre bringing a fresh feminist perspective to an Australian classic.

Ray Lawler's play explores alternatives to marriage, with Melbourne barmaid Olive (Jordan Best) living for the five months of year she spends with her sugar cane-cutting beau Roo (Craig Alexander).

Jordan's Olive shows the character's flaws and dimensions: giddy and childish, but feisty when defending her unconventional alliance with Roo.  Every year he brings her a new kewpie doll in a garish tutu, and the entire living room is festooned with these ugly treasures.

Craig Alexander's Roo is described as an eagle, but after a bad harvest his wings have been clipped: stone broke and forced into the exhausting drudge of factory work, the wild benders of past summers have been swapped for quiet nights playing cards.  And if you're going to be boring together, why not just get married?

This well-observed play with vivid and recognisable Australian characters has been brought to life by equally well-observed performances, particularly from the female actors.  Director Karen Vickery has not only drawn out the female voices in the play, but given it a modern awareness that sheds new light on an already strong script.

When men fight in this production, the reaction of the women is the focus: there is concern, yes, but a hint of non-comprehension.  If these cane cutters just had a little emotional intelligence, wouldn't they realise that these brawls are a bit silly?  We are not watching from the perspective of men, caught up in a scrap over status - but from the perspective of women, who have always known that masculinity is a delicate and fragile thing.

In counterpart to the earthy relationship between Roo and Olive, we have a comic romance between cane cutter Barney (Dene Kermond) and wannabe posh Pearl (Andrea Close).  Close towers over Kermond, looking as though she could sling him over her shoulder and carry him off, but from the first moment their hands clasp - and Barney sneaks in a flirty stroke of his thumb - we know who the conqueror will be.

Close is a brilliant mimic and slips in an impressive catalogue of small details that tell character: when Pearl needs to tidy her coiffure, for example, she does it with a strategically placed lick of spit.  Kermond is also very comfortable in a role that gives him ample opportunity to snivel, flirt or roll around drunk as the scene requires.  The two actors watch and react to each other with such focus that they seem almost hypnotised, and I hope the pair find future opportunities to work together.

But there was a gap in tone between the two romances, with Olive and Roo firmly in the tradition of understated psychological realism, but Pearl and Barney evoking the vibe of a Doris Day movie.  Both pairings worked, but a more consistent tone could have bridged the comedy and drama.

Zoe Priest as young Bubba held her own with the more experienced performers, giving her role a lot of gawky character.  I also enjoyed Alex Hoskinson's straight-backed Johnnie: handsome, polite enough, but pretty much an asshole.  Liz Bradley meanwhile appeared to be having the time of her life as the Olive's canny mum Emma, and her scenes provided moments of complete joy.

The set by Michael Sparks made the interesting choice not to highlight the dolls, but to conceal them: in a cosy, busy lounge room with loud floral wallpaper, it was necessary to hunt for dolls hidden in odd spots around the stage.  This made the dolls feel insidious: not trophies, but weeds rampant among all the flowers.  The wide and broad set also sometimes drained energy from the play, and some blocking stranded characters too far from each other to make conversation seem natural.

The main thing missing from this production was a real sense of what life is like for men: a different production could have emphasised the backbreaking work of sugar cane farming, and what it is like to survive in a culture of violence.

But since virtually all theatre is men talking about men, Pigeonhole Theatre should be applauded for taking a step back from all of that nonsense, and giving the women in a classic Australian play a clearer voice than has ever been heard before.  Fresh, disarming, thoughtful, a production that adds to the conversation first sparked by its own script.


Written by Ray Lawler
Directed by Karen Vickery
Pigeonhole Theatre
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to 30 September

Reviewed by Len Power 20 September 2017

Ray Lawler’s 1955 play is a pivotal work in Australian theatre.  The naturalistic portrayal of recognizable Australian characters and their lives was embraced by the first audiences in Melbourne and the play has continued to charm and move playgoers ever since.

Set in 1953 in Melbourne in the home of barmaid, Olive, and her mother, Emma, two Queensland cane cutters have been spending each season layoff for the past 16 years having a fun and carefree holiday with Olive and her friend, Nancy.  Things have changed as the men arrive for the 17th time.  Nancy has married and gone and new friend, Pearl, has moved in.  Everyone tries to cling to the much-enjoyed past, but tensions soon arise.

Karen Vickery’s production shows a deep understanding of these characters and their hopes and dreams.  Her cast all look physically right and perform their roles with great feeling and realism.  It’s played at a good pace and we’re quickly drawn into the story of these fascinating characters.

Jordan Best gives a terrific performance as Olive, displaying a touching vulnerability under her bustling no-nonsense exterior.  Andrea Close deftly shows the two sides to Pearl – the woman worried about appearances and the fun-loving character underneath.  Liz Bradley as Emma is a sheer delight as this all-knowing and wise woman who has seen it all.  As Bubba, the girl from next door who has grown up and is now her own woman, Zoe Priest gives a strongly felt and believable performance.

Craig Alexander as cane cutter, Roo, who has begun to doubt himself and struggles to understand what is happening around him, plays all facets of this character with great conviction.  Dene Kermond is very appealing as his mate, Barney, a man who tragically doesn’t believe anything has to change.  Alex Hoskison gives a strong presence to the role of Johnnie.

Set design by Michael Sparks gives a nice flavour of a lower class Melbourne home of the 1950s and there are fine period props by Imogen Thomas.  Clever lighting design by Cynthia Jolley-Rogers, subtle sound effects by Matt Webster and period costumes by Fiona Leach add much to the atmosphere of the production.

This is an important Australian play which has stood the test of time.  Karen Vickery has given it an excellent production that is not to be missed.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s new ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.