Toy Symphony (Ad Astra)
April 21 – May 14
Experience has proven that Ad Astra is not only to be commended for its interesting production choices, but its often inventive staging of these, especially given the company’s intimate performance space. Michael Gow’s critically-acclaimed “Toy Symphony” (the play was awarded Best New Australian Work at the 2008 Helpmann Awards), stands as testament to both of these truths.
Blackboarded walls featuring graffitied quotes, allow audience members the satisfaction of seeing how they are woven into the essential fabric of the story, while trunks and suitcases stack about the stage to become a range of set pieces. They provide appropriate imagery for these is a lot to unpack in the story of playwright Roland Henning (played to perfection by Gregory J Wilken), a character who appeared in Gow’s earlier play “Furious”.
The play’s central protagonist is a complex character who, like Gow himself, knows how to use language. Indeed, he is, by all intents, a representation of the playwright himself (Gow has publicly acknowledged the somewhat autobiographical nature of the work). And through his tale, the play considers not only the nature of language and theatre, but essential elements of the human experience, such as the power of formative experiences to shape our later selves.
Following a legal victory in response to accusations of plagiarism, at the encouragement of an unseen friend, Roland reluctantly begins psychoanalysis. While he assures psychiatrist Nina (Caitlin Hill) that he does not have writers block, and therefore does not need therapy, he is clearly in denial about something and their session soon leads to a self-reflective journey through his troubled past in search for the writer he once was. Within his ensuing therapy sessions, Roland recalls real and imagined characters from his childhood, including his compassionate Year 5 teacher Mrs Walkham (Bernadette Pryde), at whose urging he funnelled his fertile imagination into a play called “Toy Symphony”.
Things momentum along through a combination of real-time and flashback storytelling, thanks to the inclusion of magical realism and larger-than-life representations in illustration of Roland’s imagination of historical figures such as Alexander the Great and alike, alongside his 1960s classmates, school bully (Sam Webb), the sweet t Mrs Walkham, intimidating school principal (Greg Scurr) and his personal champion, Nick. Although details of his childhood home in the southern Sydney suburb of Como are explored in lengthy classroom scenes, overall, these sections serve well to highlight the versatility of the dynamic cast who transition seamlessly between characters. Indeed, Act One is textured with a colorful set of characters, which the ensemble cast bring to glorious life. Hill, in particular, is excellent as both capable therapist Nina and an excitable Year 5 student, while Pryde is simply wonderful in anchor of everything as the doting Mrs Walkham, always offering warmth and assurance to Roland.
Act Two takes a turn as Rowland, now a successful playwright, faces the consequences of his past along with the loss of his parents, the combination of which spirals him into the writer’s block that prompted his therapy. From being a bullied youngster, he has now become an intimidating oppressor himself and it is uncomfortable to watch his evisceration of university student and wannabe actor Daniel (Jonathan Weir), such is power of Wilken’s performance. At times intense, and others turmoiled, he evokes both psychological depth and emotional range in his realisation of all of Roland’s selves, from his schoolboy energy to the despair of a layered man who is at his rock bottom. And his one-sided phone conversation soliloquy serves as a magnificent celebration the play’s language and its show of the human of humanity.
“Toy Symphony” shows that there is more to Australian playwright and director Michael Gow that his most famed 1986 work “Away”. The stylistically-distinctive work may touch upon similar tones in its 1960s setting, but its discussion of the merit of theatre over other art forms and attempt to understand creativity. elevate it as a clever, challenging and entertaining look at the world of the imagination. It is also very funny at times, particularly through Scurr’s Act One appearances as Rowland’s Latvian childhood friend Nick, whose hyperbolic declarations of love of beautiful women are matched only by his profane exclamations of excitement.
While it may be a neglected work, the play’s themes and inherent theatricality will hopefully ensure its longevity. Magical elements, along with Gow’s poetic writing and trademark classical allusions make “Toy Symphony” an entertaining, albeit underrated Australian play, and under Michelle Carey’s direction, Ad Astra has presented audiences with a very fine production of it.