Sunday, 9 March 1997
Up the Road, March 9, 1997
By John Harding
Playbox Theatre until March 29, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 8 2017
In Up The Road, John Harding's play about a family funeral on an aboriginal mission, director Neil Armfield has instilled a sense of joy into the theatre space. The show is one big game with actors and audience participating giving the word "play" both meanings.
Armfield recently said he wanted a theatre in which, if someone sneezed, an actor could say, "Bless you." And so did actor John Moore in the final romantic scene, without losing energy, emotion or focus. This very casualness and disregard for theatrical boundaries is the essence of the success of this production. The audience is complicit in the game and feels comfortable with a form which is loose but still perfectly controlled, has great warmth and naturalness but maintains its professionalism.
Up the Road provides information about the aboriginal community without becoming didactic and while maintaining a strong dramatic structure. This underpins Harding's well-structured story which skilfully unfolds both the personal and the political predicaments of the characters.
Harding maintains sufficient distance from his aboriginal culture to be objective and critical without abandoning an emotional connection or loyalty. His dialogue is witty, seasoned with gentle irony and a healthy cynicism in his observations of humanity, politics and the processes plaguing reconciliation in our country. It is both funny and deeply moving.
The characters are vivid and engaging and are played by a delightful cast of skilful actors. Moore is a striking romantic lead as Ian, the prodigal returning from Canberra, to visit his past. Margaret Harvey gives his now-adult childhood love, Susan, great nobility.
Irma Woods is a perky stage presence as Liddy while Bradley Byquar has an edge of danger as Charlie. Matriarch, Aunt Sissy, who is played with grace by Lillian Crombie and the sole white fella, Paul Blackwell is hilarious as the sympathetic white bureaucrat and total geek, Hidcombe. Even his trousers are funny.
The peppering of music and songs played by Wayne Freer and sung by various cast members, further detach us from naturalism as does the interpolation of stage directions by the bubbly Liddy. Brian Thompson's design provides a rough dwelling or a hot outback office complete with fly strips flapping in the breeze.
The crisp and generous direction, editing, dramaturgy and injection of a new cast seem to have combined to make this production of Up the Road not just another play but a living, breathing theatrical event.