Wednesday, 30 July 1997

La Mama Theatre Marathon Program 1, 30th anniversary, July 30, 1997

La Mama Theatre Marathon Program 1, 30th anniversary
Three Old Friends by Jack Hibberd
Long Time No See by Jack Hibberd
Robert Fumes by Barry Dickins with Peter Green
The Mind's A Wonderful Thing, Margaret Cameron
At La Mama,  Wed July 30, 1997

La Mama is celebrating its 30th birthday this week with a three-day theatre marathon of twenty-three La Mama plays. The first of the lot is a re-mount of Jack Hibberd's Three Old Friends, the very first play ever performed in Melbourne's much-loved tiny venue.

This early Hibberd (1967) has all his trademarks: an absurd situation, Australian colloquial lingo, blokey characters and repetition of ideas and dialogue. A man (Richard Bligh) who assumes he is with two old friends (Luke Elliot, Nicholas Crawford-Smith), finds his reality disintegrating as they deny knowledge of each other, their own well-known habits and, finally, of him. It is funny and disturbing in an existential way with has a satisfying pay-off at its conclusion.

It is followed by the premiere of a new Hibberd monologue, Long Time No See, performed by Evelyn Krape and also directed by Daniel Schlusser. She plays a theatre 'professional' swaddled in plaster bandages and hospitalised after an attempt to fly. Krape is in fine form in this addled character and she makes a comic meal of Hibberd's cascading language and attacks on a dying theatre industry. 'Where would theatre be without psychology? Back where it belongs'.

Next is Peter Green as Robert Fumes (1985), a snobbish and superior expatriate art critic who lives in a clinical loft in New York and slags off all things Australian while decrying the "cultural cringe." Written by the inimitable Barry Dickins, this satirical portrait of Robert Hughes is relentlessly damning of the snobbery and balderdash of the critic who actually does nothing in art.

The Mind's A Wonderful Thing is another premiere. Margaret Cameron is a magnetic performer with a honey voice and a monologue of lyrical, imagistic language. She sits at a table and tells the story of Mabel living in Northcote with her stroke-ridden Alf. But this is no ordinary storytelling although it deals with ordinary people.

Cameron's fountain of words has a beauty and delicacy that feels like the ebb and flow of the tide. Images of the suburban gully trap weave among the singing trees. Mabel's 'elephant tears falling on elephant grey concrete' are inter-cut with her thoughts of smothering Alf with glad wrap. The whole program was a delight but Cameron's brief piece had a magical quality that is rare. Her mind really is a wonderful thing.

La Mama has shows running from 6-12pm every night until Friday August 1, 1997


Saturday, 19 July 1997

Life During Wartime by Keith Reddin, July 19, 1997

Life During Wartime by Keith Reddin
Soup Kitchen Theatre Athenaeum Theatre 2, until August 31, 1997
Reviewer: Kate Herbert around July 18, 1997

American society is riddled with urban warfare. Home are defended by owners with small arms caches and-or high-tech security systems. Keith Reddin's play is a generally light commentary on the moral decline of a community that fights violence with more violence or protects itself with a fortress mentality.

Soup Kitchen Theatre performs this very American text in Australian accents with one very odd exception. This characterises the many unsuccessful choices made by the writer, director (Catherine Hill) and some of the actors.

Although the basic premise of the play may work, Reddin's unsuccessfully attempts to blend naturalism and farce in his text and this creates enormous problems for any production.

The 'real' story concerns a young security systems salesman (Brett Tucker) who falls in love with an older woman (Clarissa House) who is his client. His boss (Peter Roberts) runs a dodgy show that manufactures burglaries of properties to promote sales. This all leads to grief.

The other story is an amusing moralistic running commentary by John Calvin himself, played with puritanical relish by Jim Daly. Calvin prattles on about pre-determination, Original Sin, the immorality of theatre and, with comic anachronism, violent movies and parenting in Leave it To Beaver.

Unfortunately, the naturalism collapses into daytime soap opera with platitudes masquerading as dialogue. Characterisation is thin, which is not assisted by some very wooden acting in major roles. Reddin ends the play with Calvin in an awkward dialogue with other characters who suddenly begin to talk directly to audience.

The saving grace is Daly who, as Calvin, ponces and pontificates, sneers and patronises to perfection. His other cameos, a weapon-mad homeowner and an oddball neighbour, are a welcome relief from the tedium as is Samuel Johnson (his real name!) who demonstrates great comic skill.

The design of geometric vertical household blinds is initially interesting but the blinds continually swan across the stage to provide new locations and to mask slow scene changes. This becomes predictable, annoying and fragments the stage.

Evocative lighting by Daniel Zika dapples the blinds but surprisingly did not explore the potential of any back lighting through slats which might have covered some rather obvious backstage movement of furniture and cast.


Wednesday, 16 July 1997

The Mourning After by Verity Lambert, July 16, 1997

The Mourning After by Verity Lambert
Alexander Theatre & Regional Tour, July – Aug, 1997
Reviewer: Kate Herbert around July 14, 1997

'I'd like to see that again I enjoyed it so much,' said a grey-haired woman to her companion on leaving The Mourning After. She was one of the many over-50's who flocked to the Alexander Theatre at Monash to see Nancye Hayes in a mid-week matinee.

This monodrama by Verity Lambert appears to have been written as a vehicle for musical comedy star, Hayes. Belle has been a chorus-line singer and radio serial star ('it lasted three years longer than Blue Hills'). During the play she agonises whether to accept a singing role as Ned Kelly's mum.

The inimitable Hayes sings snatches of tunes and concludes the show with Ellen Kelly's melancholy song about her dead son. This echoes with Belle's grieving over the death of her cantankerous husband who was "an unfunny comedian but a born bank teller'.

 She struggles with guilt and grief. Did her insistence on taking the role cause Harry's heart attack? Did she do it accidentally-on-purpose? The script unfortunately skims the surface of notions of grief, loss and family conflict.

Hayes is engaging as Belle and the audience responded warmly in laughs and applause although her slightly mannered performance is not always comfortable.

I don't want to be a killjoy but this show is not my cup of tea. A second viewing does not enhance the show. The text is neither deftly written nor well constructed, the character lacks depth and the direction is predictable.

Director Tony Sheldon, also of musical comedy background, has set the piece on an uncluttered stage against a plain seascape (Trina Parker) that echoes traditional theatre backcloths. Its simplicity is practical and effective for a touring show.

Sheldon has allowed no interruption to the constant flow of Lambert's words. In fact, silence is a major deficiency in this production. The script is often painfully expository, repeating ideas in different words. Often the persistent self-commentary is unnecessarily duplicating the on stage action.

The treatment of the audience as beach side gulls and, in Act Two, a stormy evening is clumsy although it allows Hayes to address us directly and breaks the pattern of self-narration. The piece has a predictable rhythm, building to peppy chatter, reminiscence, suddenly interrupted by sadness followed by introspection and self-flagellation.

Friday, 11 July 1997

Roo by Angus Strachan, July 11, 1997

Roo by Angus Strachan
La Mama until July 20, 1997
Reviewer: Kate Herbert around July 10, 1997

 'Like taking coals to Newcastle' says Sydney playwright Angus Strachan about bringing his footy show, Roo, in Melbourne. In fact we haven't seen a football play for yonks; since Bouncers perhaps  although that was Rugby, not real footy!

Roo is a short, pacey piece with some peppy dialogue. Director Peter Hayes has kept it going at a cracking final quarter pace and the three actors seem to be having fun with Strachan's blokey repartee.

It is a simple story about conflict behind the goal posts in a country town team. The Coach (Peter Carmody) is old school. He believes punishment and abuse make better players and playing 'toe to toe' will win the game.

He does not count on the disillusionment of Stevo, his team captain and son (James Manser) and his star goal-kicker and adoptive son, Blue (Theo Burns).

The emotional layer is more interesting than the actual team politics and could have been further developed. These three men have a personal history which keeps threatening to take over the narrative. Blue may be the half-cast son of the Coach. He still resents his half-brother's teenage escape to a big city school. 'You've gone soft.'

The Coach's dicky ticker looks like bursting a phoofer valve, particularly with Carmody's volatile spitfire performance. Burns is a vigorously physical Blue and Manser provides the necessary balance to the two loudmouths.

Strachan's dialogue is well observed and pungent. It reeks of the clubrooms. Characters in the team have names such as Macca, Smacka, Davo and Cactus.
Strachan incorporates a few poetic monologues that draw parallels between the human and desert landscape. He creates a metaphor of a big roo being hunted down. The buck stands his ground just like the Coach under siege or the wooden-spooners under pressure.

 There are odd moments when the text sounds a little like a Marlboro ad or becomes too expository but it is well structured with strong characterisations.

Roo touches gently on race relations and the effects of drought on a community; the team are tuckered out because they've been lugging fodder to their steers all week. If they don't beat the pack of fairy sheep farmers, they'll be history!ˇ

Wednesday, 2 July 1997

Meatsafe by Franz Docherty, July 2, 1997

Meatsafe by Franz Docherty
La Mama at Courthouse until July 19, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbrt around July 1, 1997

Franz Docherty's play Meatsafe blatantly draws parallels between the bloody activities of the slaughterhouse and the sometimes equally violent, albeit metaphorical, vivisections in our human relationships.

Meatsafe is an intense drama from the Realist school and this production of a new and expanded script boasts passionate performances. Daniel Lillford directs the show with great attention to emotional detail.

The play bubbles away in a pressure cooker country town the only local industry being the abattoir that has Union problems. Nola, a local, married Nick, an outsider, three years ago. They have one toddler and crave more but something is wrong.

As in most country towns, everybody knows more than their share of others' personal business. When history starts to catch up with the couple and the other blokes at the meatworks the temperature rises and the meat starts to stink.

Docherty's dialogue is swift and idiomatic while his characters are rich and clearly defined. During the scenes between the blokes we were flies on the meatworks' locker-room walls: an ugly image. The rawness of the men's language and their rowdy play and abuse was a peek into an unexpurgated male dominion.

The comedy arises effectively from the truth of the interactions and from characters' idiosyncrasies rather than being gag based. The action moves rapidly and the narrative holds attention with only a few hiccups here and there. The first act is stronger, interweaving the various plot lines and sustaining characters more effectively than the second.

The performances are uniformly strong. Bradley Hulme plays Nick as a wonderfully rough diamond, a well-meaning man who faces more crises in a week than one man can stand in a lifetime. It is an intensely sympathetic portrayal of a complex character.

As Nola, Margot Fenley has warmth and depth and Michael Burkett is a delightful depiction of Hughie, the young and the sexist. Damien Richardson, Terry Kenwrick, Helen Rollinson and Fiona Blackwood are all powerful presences onstage.

There were some problems that might be ironed out in the running of the new draft: some discrepancies in the chronology of the characters' relationships and too many unnecessary blackouts. Although the floor-lit wooden grille was a great centrepiece, the stage seemed cluttered by a rather clumsy set that interfered with the action. But this is a great piece of Theatre Verite'.