Summer Wonderland (Mates Theatre Genesis)
Donald Simpson Community Centre, Cleveland
May 5 – 15
With its staged façade of numbers 3,7, and 9 Dickens Court, “Summer Wonderland” could easily pass for a Christmas play… Australian Christmas that is. “Please ring,” number 3’s doorbell sign notes, which doesn’t exactly reflect the sentiment of this suburban cul-de-sac of Matthew Ryan’s creation. Old-fashioned and now-unemployed bogan battler Bob Jones (Dennis Walsh who also doubles as the mad King Ludwig of his son’s imaginary manifestation) is all ocker in his a-quip-for-everything views, like how marriage is like a boil. He is hardly an expert though as the play opens to his unseen wife’s departure, leaving him alone in the house with his son Foster (Ronan Mason) who is in continual financial support of his dad. While Foster’s apprentice mechanic work may pay the electricity and insurance, it is obviously unfulfilling to the young man who dreams of traveling the world, starting with Bavaria.
Loud and obnoxious Bob is a terrible father, spiteful and, at times childish, in his behaviour. In the neighbourhood, this is matched by his nemesis, the snobby, bitchy and self-obsessed Marti (Amanda Lay) whose parenting of her sheltered daughter Demoniselle (Sammy Jo Toussaint Guild) is similarly questionable in its own way. The catalyst of the two’s feud comes in their respective ambitions to win the local radio station’s Christmas lights competition in seek of its substantial cash prize.
Between Bob and Marti lives the downtrodden and emotionally-crippled Eugene (Trevor Sammon), in serious debt after the arrival of his Russian mail-order bride Svetlana (Amanda Lay in double duty). This is from where some of the Mates Theatre Genesis production’s best performances come. Lay is dynamic as the shouty, sexually-aggressive Svetlana, beyond just her exaggerated comedy accent and Sammon, in double as Russian mafia debt collector Gustav, after Eugene for $10 000, brings some interesting layers to a character who comically loves Australian ‘80s tv game show ‘It’s a Knockout” as much as his occupational intimidation of others.
With “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” and Allan Border mentions, “Summer Wonderland” is very much a work of its ‘80s time, yet it is still accessible beyond those familiar with the era, thanks to Ryan’s very funny script. The dialogue is full of clever humour, even though lines are unfortunately not always given space to fully land, meaning that those following are sometimes then lost. And though things will of course settle, opening night sees some stumbles the detract from momentum. Different diction and vocal projections also sometimes undermine cohesion, however, Mason, is an excellent anchor as the entrepreneurial Foster, caught between betraying his family and escaping his father once and for all.
Under Suze Harpur’s direction, the production makes good use of stage space and props, which includes a cardboard cut-out of the long-standing eyesore FJ Holden ute that sits in Bob’s front yard. This suits a show that is essentially built upon caricatures and stereotypes. Indeed, it is both easy to recognise the (albeit amplified) characters on stage and easy to watch their stories unfold amongst the cornucopia of Christmas accessories as houses are decorated and displays are sabotaged.
“Summer Wonderland” is light-hearted entertainment with heart. Though its intended journey is not necessarily apparent at end of Act One, we know it is coming, with early crafted foreshadowing creating the causes of later character epiphanies. While at a more allegorical level, the play delves into bigger picture considerations of the great Australian dream, family dynamics and relationships, at its core, its message is a simple one of hope, even if the storyline is farcical, particularly in scenes featuring the unnecessary character of religious prude Mrs Slade (Anna Bober).