The linger of life lessons

Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 22 – May 14

If theatre is about making you think about life, then former QTC Artist Director Michael Gow’s “Once in Royal David’s City” (his first play in seven years) is theatre at its best as it takes audiences on a beautiful and emotional journey through life’s phases of hearing, living and telling stories, in exploration of what gives our life vulnerability, but also meaning.

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The play tells the tale of a mother and son dealing with the death of a loved one. Will (Jason Klarwein) is a Brecht-obsessed theatre director whose father has recently passed away. He wants to treat his mother (Penny Everingham) to a relaxing Christmas break so they can spend some quality time together. Yet, what sounds like a simple story becomes so much more as the non-linear narrative (with Will as narrator) spans time and location, taking audiences from West Berlin to Byron Bay and from the 1950s to the present.

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There are many nods to motifs of Gow’s seminal “Away” in that it sees a family holidaying by the beach at the typically-emotionally charged Christmas time (its title is that of a processional hymn about shattering perceptions of a picturesque nativity with reality, and its program cover is appropriately red and green in its design). However, its use of the Brechtian techniques sets it apart. Indeed, in early sections it seems that this is a show for drama folk, with its frequent references not just to the German director but to classic texts like “The Important of Being Earnest” and “Mother Courage and Her Children”, both of which have also appeared on the Playhouse stage in recent years. But as things progress, the references become more fused with contemporary realism, bringing with them considerations not ultimately appreciated until its final bookend ‘lecture’ on Brechtian theory and technique.

While the show is full of heartfelt moments and silences for audiences to fall into, with lip-biting, ‘I will not cry’ resolution in response to its challenging subject matter of saying goodbye to a loved one, there is a lot of light-heartedness too, including spontaneous song and dance numbers and amusing dialogue, with perfect comic-timing delivery of some early-show one liners.

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The ensemble cast is a strong one, led by Brisbane’s own Jason Klarwein in the complex leading role. As Will, Klarwein gives a riveting and finely-nuanced performance as a character dealing with emotional obstacles and the very human dilemmas of grief, loss, identity and an associated personal crisis of insecurity within a passion. As his ailing mother Jeannie, Penny Everingham is wonderfully spirited but ultimately vulnerable and Steven Turner, in particular, assumes multiple roles, all with equal ease.

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The talented creative team allows the actors to take centre stage. Stephen Curtis’s design is simple yet effective down to the smallest details, such as the hand sweep of curtains that sometimes signpost scene changes. The production benefits from an evocatively minimalist set and Matt Scott’s rich lighting design, which transports audiences between the stark fluorescence of hospital ward lighting to brilliantly backlit shadow play of a Marxist revolution, well-deserving of its opening night smattering of mid-show applause.

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As a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company, “Once in Royal David’s City” serves as display of all the good things that can come from collaboration. In the hands of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Sam Strong, in directorial debut with the company, it is becomes a sensitive and engaging take of a compassionate story. The wonderfully life-affirming work is surprising, sad and unexpectedly funny, and could only perhaps be better if it were being seen in the festive season itself.

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“Once in Royal David’s City” is a beautifully crafted show from one of this country’s best playwrights and, accordingly, there is much to be taken away from its experience, both intellectually and emotionally. Not only are there references to Marxism and Christianity to continue to consider, but its ubiquitous reminder of our mortality and the need to enjoy life to fullest and cherish those special to us are poignant enough to linger as lessons long after its conclusion. And Molly’s (Kay Stevenson) monologue about the blink-of-an-eye progress from carefree teenage skylarking to the increased doctors’ visits that come with age will certainly resonate with many audience members. Still, “Once in Royal David’s City” is an enigmatic show… the type you want to tell everyone you know to see, without revealing specifics about its at-once intimate and epic journey in answer to American physicist and children’s television presenter Dr Julius Sumner Miller ‘s ask, ‘why is it so?’

Photos – c/o Philip Gostelow, photographed at Heath Ledger Theatre, Northbridge, WA

Homegrown hil-AIR-ity

Gasp (Queensland Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 17 – December 7

“Gasp” is a reworking of the first play by internationally renowned comic writer Ben Elton, originally starring Hugh Laurie… and it shows … #inagoodway. So fans of Elton’s sitcom “Black Adder” will surely delight in the show’s sharp, irreverent humour. More than this, however, the work is filled with accessible political and social satire to engage even the most causal of theatre goers; it’s like a more vibrant David Williamson work.

“Gasp” (originally “Gasping”) has been reimagined in a contemporary Australian context (Elton’s homeland of the last 25 years), where the country has gone giddy on the resource boom. Mining is the only game in town and Lockheart Industries is leading the pack (if god wanted to buy into Lockhart he’d have to think twice and talk to his people). Inspired by the asthmatic Peggy (Lucy Goleby), clever, low-level executive Phil (Damon Lockwood) impresses company head Chifley Lockheart (Greg McNeill) when he creates the ‘Suck & Blow’ filter machine to produce clean air because ‘if you don’t have suck and blow, the rest is just hot air’. As sales skyrocket, Phil becomes a corporate superstar. So slick is the ensuing advertising campaign that there are times within Act One where you might find yourself considering the merits of a better class of oxygen (because other people’s air just gets right up your nose), ahead of the government’s announcement of a national suck and blow network.

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Staging of this QTC/ Black Swan State Theatre Company co-production is as slick as a steam room big business deal. The opening image of a red Arne Jacobsen chair centre stage against gleaming white corporate surrounds sets the aesthetic tone and a luscious lighting design fills the space with floods of glorious colour. The multi-media screen backdrop is used with versatility to allow for inclusion of media snippet insights into how the world beyond the Lockheart offices is reacting to the innovation and subsequent division of the planet into the haves and the have-nots (if you can’t pay, you don’t breathe). The dynamism that this brings to the story again cements the brilliance of production designer Optikal Bloc’s Midas theatrical touch.

As protagonist Phil, Lockwood eases into a performance that is sometimes reminiscent of Prince George (Hugh Laurie’s loud mouthed idiot “Blackadder” character) especially in the delivery of lines about “women all round the world walking around with Aussie beaches in their boobies” (thanks to silicon from sand), however, his dialogue is sometimes encumbered by long and obscure analogies. There is also an inherent humour to Steve Rooke’s portrayal of the smarmy Sandy, Phil’s initial superior at the firm. His dramatic nature and libertine tendencies are are played to perfection (reminiscent of television’s Douglas Reynhold character in “The IT Crowd”) in physicality and vocal inflection. As a muppet of marketing, where nothing goes without saying, Caroline Brazier is a delightful business-class babe; her matter-of-fact delivery and the comic timing of her bitchy comments provide some of the biggest laughs of Act Two as she sets her sights on the naïve Phil and reveals in air snob superiority.

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Despite its sharp humour, “Gasp” is not without conscience and moral questions feature at its core as the environmental impacts of oxygen stockpiling and privatisation begin to emerge. Indeed, its final moments of salvation are a comforting conclusion after two hours of unscrupulous corporate corruption and unethical behaviour, as big business goes bad, prioritising profit over humanity, which is, unfortunately far too recognisable. This topicality is what gives the play so much of its appeal; it is a show rooted in time and place due to its plentiful pop culture references. From Tony Abbot and Joe Hockey to Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart, Lara Bingle, Miranda Kerr, Tim Tams, Target and “Farmer Wants a Wife”, to “QandA”, “The 7.30 Report” and Tassie tree huggers, this essentially corporate comedy includes a favourite line for everyone, making this a perfectly placed end to the 2014 QTC season. While its wit makes it quite a talky play, its razor sharp humour makes “Gasp” quite hil-AIR-ious.