‘60s summer stories

Away (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 25 – November 13

Along with “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll”, Michael Gow’s “Away” is Australian Drama 101. The play is a classic work easily able to be revisited and seen anew through a contemporary lens, celebration of which is central to La Boite Theatre’s revival of the much-loved work.

The summer print of usher outfits and preshow of-era soundtrack of The Seekers’ ‘Georgie Girl’ et al, transports us to the story’s summer beach holiday represented simply on stage. However, while Gow’s memory play is of a childhood of idyllic summer holidays of this sort, when the night hues unsettle from their pre-show blanket of the stage, we are taken not to the beach of its 1967 setting, but rather the conclusion of a school’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which young Tom (Reagan Mannix) has starred as Puck.

The play serves as punctuation to the school year before families depart for summer holidays appropriate to their respective status. Class conflicts are evident as Tom’s immigrant parents, still full of wonder around the novelty of a summer Christmas, are condescended to by the strict mother of his classmate Meg (Billy Fogarty). Middle class Gwen (Emily Burton) is appalled that the working class English migrants will be spending their holidays in a lean-to-tent, as opposed to their prime caravan park spot. Meanwhile, school headmaster Roy (Bryan Probets) is flying his wife Coral (Christen O’Leary) to a glitzy Gold Coast resort for some rest and recreation, in hope to snap her out of her all-consuming grief over the recent death of their conscript son in Vietnam.

From its opening scene, issues of its time of social upheaval swirl around the play’s smaller, personal and human stories, for all three families have their own turmoil and are struggling in some way. When a force of Shakespearean proportions forces their respective vacations to fall apart, their crises are brought to a head by their intersection. As their secrets are shared, relationships are forged and repaired and new hope is fostered.

Mannix gives a brilliant performance in his professional debut, easily illustrating his character’s development from enthusiastic schoolboy to mature, mindful young adult and Fogarty’s conveyance of Meg’s stoicism serves a strong complement to this. Alongside them, a talented who’s who of Brisbane theatre fills out the cast. Ngoc Phan and Kevin Spink capture their character’s immigrant optimism in their easy-going attitudes in mask of the painful reality they know they will be facing in the future. As Meg’s father Jim, Sean Dow gives us patient character counterpoint to the blunt force that is his wife Gwen. Burton is brilliant in making Gwen immediately unlikeable as the highly strung woman always in need of a Bex and a bit of a lie down. However, while her manner is obviously hiding a deep hurt, her dialogue is so brittle and snipes so viciously spat out that some of the impact of her emotional journey is lost by the suddenness of her character change.  

Proberts is excellent as stoic headmaster Roy, delivering one of the play’s most moving monologues in reflection of the price needed to be paid for the life we have, in defence of his son’s conscription to Vietnam. And O’Leary is mesmeric in her delicate realisation of his fragile and frayed wife Coral, ready to retreat into the darkness and shadows that appear as metaphor for her grief.

A textured aesthetic suits the magical realism at the centre of director Daniel Evans’ vision. A swelling soundscape and sepia-toned nostalgia takes the audience into the post-holiday realities that end the play. Shakespearean references abound as a tempest of a storm catalyses a change for each family. Indeed, Brady Watkins sound design and composition, and Ben Hughes’ lighting design effectively combine to storm us through new year’s eve to 1968 and into interval.

Of era props and some exquisite 1960s gowns, assist in transporting audiences away into the on-stage world. Indeed, Sarah Winter’s set and costume design reveals an attention to detail even down to the shell cases that surround the stage lighting of the central stage. The round stage works well, not just for in-the-round audience engagement, but to represent the divide in families as conversations occur from across its sides. And Liesel Zink’s choreography is impressive, both in the initial ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ segment, and in the show’s creative considerations of all the opportunities of space to give levels from which observers can look down upon the action.

At 140 minutes duration (including interval), this “Away” is a long one, with not only inclusion of a play scene within a play, but an end of season campground concert performance, which although provide a comic balance to the heavy themes of the narrative’s drama, do drag things a little. Mostly, there is a delicate balance between the show’s tones, as fantasies and dreams explode from its domestic naturalism, however, some moments don’t land as well as others, such as when audience laughter continues without recognition of the mood change coming from the urgency of Tom’s desire to lose his virginity to Meg, meaning that the production isn’t as moving as it should be in some moments.

“Away” is a political and social time capsule story about reconciliation, acceptance of life’s obstacles and the need to move forward. Yet, in its exploration of suspicion of outsiders and fear of change, it still has a lot to say about who we were, through the lens of who we are now that we are more grown up as a nation, making it a worth a visit, especially for anybody yet to experience this classic and widely produced work from one of our country’s most significant playwrights.

Photos c/o Morgan Roberts

The challenge of the classic

Away (heartBeast Theatre)

Trinity Hall, Fortitude Valley

February 12 – March 7

Typically, classic plays can be challenging to stage. Audience members are likely to know at least something about the story, if not have intimate familiarity. Hence, you need to find ways for viewers to reconsider its meaning. Michael Gow’s 1986 work “Away” certainly falls into this category; Gow is one of those few playwrights whose work is repeatedly favoured by theatre companies staging Australian drama, for despite its late 1960s setting, its thematic examination of key aspects of the Australian psyche including mateship and the underdog, make it somewhat universal.

The story is one of sun, sand and sacrifice as it follows the struggles of three families against a backdrop of a traditional Christmas holidays beach break holiday to a non-specific destination ‘up the coast’. But all is not as it seems behind the veneers of their varied lives, with seasonal smiles masking many personal tragedies. Immigrants Harry (Brian Bolton) and Vic (Sherri Smith) are faced with their adolescent son Tom’s illness. Meanwhile, teenage Meg’s friendship with the socially unsuitable Tom is of concern to her henpecked father Jim (David Paterson) and overbearing mother (overplayed by Jacqueline Kerr). And a grief-stricken Coral (Adrienne Costello) recalls the days when husband Roy (Warwick Comber) would compare her to Hollywood starlet Kim Novak. But over their time away, the families are reconciled to face the future anew.

away 2

“Away” is well known for time appropriate language, settings and relationships. And in the case of heartBeast’s production, this is realised not just through maintenance of its cultural references (products like the housewife’s drug of choice, Bex power and personalities like the iconic Australian actor Chips Rafferty), but through a wardrobe of costume choices that effectively recapture this hippie period of utopian optimism. Unfortunately, this realism is juxtaposed with some laborious comic relief scenes and the interpretive dance, frenzied representation of a tempest of a storm whipped up by havoc-wreaking fairies.

It is no coincidence that the storm is pivotal to the action of the play, as in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. “Away” has clear and plentiful intertextual links with Shakespearean drama. The play begins with the final scene of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the play performed at the end of the school year and concludes with the start of “King Lear”, as further evidence of its focus of the eternal nature of journeys. There is also use of character disguise and the inclusion of ‘The Stranger on the Shore’ an allegorical, beautifully staged, play within a play during which Tom shows Coral a way to overcome her grief for her son, lost to the Vietnam war.

As Coral’s husband, school Principal Roy, Comber has a natural stage presence that not only anchors the action, but also highlights the deficiencies of others of lesser experience. But it is Tim’s immigrant parents, played by Harry and Smith, who provide the standout performances, not only maintaining authentic English accents throughout, but conveying content satisfaction in their philosophy of neither looking forward nor back. The problem is the doubling of characters amongst the actors in order bring an ambitious work such as this to life. As Tom, heartBeast newcomer Patrick Bell is engaging in his teenager flirtation with Meg (Johancee Theron), full, as it is, of coy interactions and sideways glances. Yet, as newlywed Rick, with whom the grieving Carol forms an attachment, he appears completely miscast and unimportant to the action.

away

It is easy to understand why heartBeast has chosen “Away” as its first work of 2015. Since it was first performed on stage in 1986, the play has engaged audiences with its coming of age story, as both individuals and a nation. And its themes are as relevant as ever with its comments on reconciliation and loss. These alone are enough to drive the narrative. To tone down the naturalism and emphasise the play’s over-the-top, dated comic scenes, serves only to labour the point of an already lengthy show.

Michael Gow is one of this country’s most significant playwrights. His often colloquial dialogue and vivid character constructions allow audience members to emphasise with and relate to characters. Indeed, its themes of generation gap differences and class distinctions show similarity with other works of our country’s cannon, such as Alan Seymour’s “The One Day of the Year” and maybe it is this alone, that makes “Away” a worthwhile venture, for as its “Twelfth Night” epigraph asks, ‘what country, friends, is this?

*A review of this show also appears on the XS Entertainment website.