Country Song (Queensland Theatre Company)
QPAC, Cremorne Theatre
July 4 – August 8
Front and centre of the Cremorne Theatre stage is a lone microphone, which is entirely appropriate given the promise of “Country Song” to celebrate the music and life of Australia’s Jimmy Little, the pioneering artist who journeyed from poverty and personal tragedy to become a country music star, inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame. However, it soon emerges that this introductory image is one that belies the show’s much bigger thematic tale of indigenous inspiration and hope.
Act One begins by taking the audience through past times in sensibility and song in presentation of Little’s life story from his youth with vaudeville parents in Cummeragunja to becoming the first aboriginal entertainer to be seen regularly on television. It is a journey enhanced by projected optikal bloc imagery to provide context and meld story and action. From the textures of the natural Australian landscape along the banks of the Murray River to RSL dressing rooms, the imagery and soundscape combine with subtle transitions to help bring the story to bolder life and although initially audiences may wonder why the screens are not higher, reasoning is gloriously revealed in Act Two’s rousing musical finale.
As the essentially passive protagonist, Michael Tuahine is every part the good-natured, clean-living ‘Gentleman Jim’. His dulcet, delicate tones are perfectly suited to delivery of the singer’s signature tunes, like number one chart hit, gospel track ‘Royal Telephone’, however, it is his incredible rendition of Johnny Cash’s ‘Burning Ring of Fire’ that serves as pre-interval highlight.
Aside from Tuahine, all members of the cast serve multiple roles. As Little’s mother and then also as his wife Marg, Elain Crombie is another standout. Her clear and precise performances of both characters are engaging and touching. However, Act Two belongs to Megan Sarmardin as the angel of country music Auriel Andrew. Her rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ is just beautiful and cements the worth of her inclusion in the most recent Women in Voice showcase of talented female vocalists at QPAC as part of the Women of the World Festival. In his many roles, David Page is a comedic force; from Elvis to Slim Dusty (and with help from some ludicrous wigs), he shows a spirited energy to his characterisations, which results in many hilarious scenes.
With moments such as these, “Country Song” could easily be just a frolicsome little show through the landscape of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, complete with appropriate costumes and hair, however, Director Wesley Enoch is architect of a much bigger narrative through these times of discrimination and change. Whereas Act One focusses on Little’s story, Act Two shares of his legacy, in particular the stories of singer Auriel Andrew, political activist Bobby McLeod and boxing champ and sometimes singer Lionel Rose.
Although a fictionalised story, “Country Song” has many important things to say as it shines a light on Indigenous Australians who have contributed to the musical and social legacy of this nation. And as it weaves through the political and social landscape, the show’s pacing ebbs and flows through a wonderful soundtrack of music from a range of artists in a journey that will surely have audiences revelling, whether it be in memory of their parent’s collection or nostalgia of their own.