Brisbane (Queensland Theatre Company)
QPAC, The Playhouse
April 11 – May 2
“The air is thick and wet and the sun burns your skin like it hates your guts.” From its opening lines, it is clear that “Brisbane” has an endearing authenticity to its representation of the city. Its staging too, is appealing in is actuality, with its split level set showing the detailed under-house of an iconic Queenslander dwelling. Although it is a big set (befitting a big story), it is full of hidden corners, like seeing David Malouf’s “12 Edmondstone Street” brought to life. The result is comforting in its historic nostalgia and interesting in the juxtaposition created between the creative space of its protagonist’s literary imagination and his bleak family life level above.
Set in 1942, a time of street cricket, milkman deliveries and backyard trenches, “Brisbane” tells an epic story of a changing world through lens of 14-year-old Danny Fisher (Dash Kruck) whose pilot brother (Conrad Coleby) has been killed in the bombing of Darwin. As his devastated family unravels, the teen finds a surrogate sibling in the American pilot Andy (also played by Coleby) who is stationed in Brisbane. While the narrative is first and foremost about a family, holistically, the play is about a time of tension when Brisbane went from being a tranquil town to a city worthy of General MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area Allied Forces Headquarters in Queen Street.
As the audience is reminded in the play’s closing moments, “this happened, here, in Brisbane.” And references to the city’s locations, landmarks and institutions abound as Aussie soldiers stand around drinking beer and watching as their women are swept off their feet (quite literally taking flight) by the American GIs with their pleases and thank-yous.
Like all quality theatre, the work becomes a launching pad for much after-show discussion and sharing of stories from the past, with audience members overheard telling others about Cloudland’s coloured history and late night Deen Brothers demolition. Indeed, the show has an appealing authenticity, down to the finest detail, with lighting washing the stage with sepia-tinged warmth and clever use of props and shadow play to conjure images of flying. The soundscape is also noteworthy, especially in Act One’s very funny and inventive newsreel re-enactment.
Characters are archetypally recognisable, like Australians of a bygone “Cloudstreet” era, yet never does it seem like the show is re-treading old ground. QTC has garnered quite the first class cast and although beginning scenes are busy with many characters, key players soon emerge. Chief among them is Harriet Dyer as the feisty, foul-mouthed and excitable Patty, Danny’s best friend, who provides much of Act One’s comedy. As an aspiring writer living in a storyteller’s world in which everything is something else, Kruck also delivers a memorable coming-of-age performance of one who begins with innocence, naivety and enthusiasm, not unlike the city itself in terms of its world stage status.
As his earlier works have shown, Matthew Ryan knows how to write about history (“Kelly”) and can easily bring Brisbane to life (“Boy Girl Wall”) and “Brisbane” triumphs in this combination. Although it is clearly evocative of time and place, it is about sensibility as much as setting and characters. Like a sticky-taped scrapbook of memories, “Brisbane” serves as storage mechanism in which stories can be kept and importantly shared. Although the play’s official U.S. Guide to Australia states that Australians typically look to the future and not back to the past, in this instance, we must be thankful that this is not the case for within the nooks and crannies of our history lurk the most absorbing of theatre tales.