Jimmy’s journey

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.

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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.

Diggers does its thing

Black Diggers (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 24 – October 12

“Black Diggers” is an important work, made to mark the centenary of The Great War. It tells the untold stories of Indigenous Australians fighting for their country during World War One (at a time when they were not recognised as Australian citizens). Through a series of personal vignettes the show reflects on experiences before nationhood, as these men enlisted, their venture to war to ‘hold a gun and stand in the sun’, the dignity of their quiet strength in return to the same old prejudices and their ultimate legacy as a forgotten part of our diverse national narrative.

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All scenes are based on genuine moments; real men, reported incidents, documented arguments, individual stories, however, the fragmentary nature of this narrative structure is challenging. Initially, the show’s tone is humourous, albeit simple more than sophisticated, with crowd-pleasing local geographical references and panto-esque character exaggerations. There is a poignant shift, however, courtesy of a simple statement: “I’ve seen hundreds of bodies, but this is the first one that looks like me.”

Scenes set after the war, when society still sees skin rather than service, elicit the most memorable performances and moving monologues from some of the all-male indigenous cast. David Page and Luke Carroll’s experience shines, however, the actors all give decent enough performances, especially given their multiple characters and generational variance.

The set is minimal, yet highly effective in conveying the ‘patchwork quilt of the past’ feel that Tom Wright outlines in the program’s Writer’s Note. The bunker-walled staging serves as blackboard, to be progressively graffitied by players marking people’s names as fragments of the whole theatre of war story.

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The acting isn’t particularly noteworthy and the plot isn’t always entirely engaging, but “Black Diggers” is an essential Australian play in its creation of a memorial to men who had been largely invisible up until now. There are several reasons to support this production, but perhaps the best is how it does its thing in thought provocation. As the broad themes are drawn together in the play’s final ceremonial moments, featuring ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reverie’, above strains of a didgeridoo, you will feel compelled to share in its moving standing ovation.