Thursday, 19 October 2000

The Small Poppies, Oct 19, 2000

by David Holman Company B Belvoir Street
at Playhouse until October 28, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Remember your first day at Big School. It can be traumatic. I fell on my head off the monkey bars. That explains a lot.

The small poppies in David Holman's play directed by Neil Armfield, are five year olds starting school.  These littlies grapple with isolation, separation from mum, loss of friends, making new mates. The story is simple. Clint goes to Big School without his best friend and must make new pals.

The school community is populated with bullies, cowards, altruists, swots, dummies, negotiators and romantics. It is a microcosm for the adult world, perhaps even for the world of international diplomacy with the prep teacher as the well-meaning but ineffectual United Nations.

The performances by this exceptional ensemble which includes Geoffrey Rush, are charming and beautifully observed. They capture the diverse and idiosyncratic qualities and behaviour of preppies.
Rush's silent, open-mouthed weeping as the friendless and frightened Clint, rings bells in everybody and his impeccable clown skills are hilarious.

Arky Michael'sbully, Shane, makes us want revenge. Debra Mailman's Cambodian refugee, Lep, twangs our hearts and David Field's Theo is needy, generous and warm-hearted. Julie Forsyth's prep teacher is hilariously goofy and recognisable while Rebecca Massey is versatile in several roles.

This show should be running early for families. It is an unusual show for the Melbourne Festival. It is uncomplicated, written originally for Theatre in Education in the mid-80s and has no esoteric content or style.

The script is made up of kids' jokes, rhymes, songs and chants. One of the funniest scenes is a mad song called Hippopotamus. Music by Alan John and Greg Sully and a prep classroom set design by Stephen Curtis, complete the atmosphere.

The play encapsulates Neil Armfield's drive to stage theatre that epitomises Australianness, as did his production of Cloudstreet. He pulls down the fourth wall of the stage so that the audience can be contacted. He steps away from theatrical artifice, vanity and elitism.

The play is superbly performed with an enthusiasm and love that spills into the audience. It does not push the boundaries of cultural commentary or theatrical convention, nor does it explore the darker areas of adult-child issues of Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills. It  is, however, a delightful night at the theatre.

By Kate Herbert

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