Comedy courting

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).

A town in time

Brisbane (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 11 – May 2

“The air is thick and wet and the sun burns your skin like it hates your guts.” From its opening lines, it is clear that “Brisbane” has an endearing authenticity to its representation of the city. Its staging too, is appealing in is actuality, with its split level set showing the detailed under-house of an iconic Queenslander dwelling. Although it is a big set (befitting a big story), it is full of hidden corners, like seeing David Malouf’s “12 Edmondstone Street” brought to life. The result is comforting in its historic nostalgia and interesting in the juxtaposition created between the creative space of its protagonist’s literary imagination and his bleak family life level above.


Set in 1942, a time of street cricket, milkman deliveries and backyard trenches, “Brisbane” tells an epic story of a changing world through lens of 14-year-old Danny Fisher (Dash Kruck) whose pilot brother (Conrad Coleby) has been killed in the bombing of Darwin. As his devastated family unravels, the teen finds a surrogate sibling in the American pilot Andy (also played by Coleby) who is stationed in Brisbane. While the narrative is first and foremost about a family, holistically, the play is about a time of tension when Brisbane went from being a tranquil town to a city worthy of General MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area Allied Forces Headquarters in Queen Street.

As the audience is reminded in the play’s closing moments, “this happened, here, in Brisbane.” And references to the city’s locations, landmarks and institutions abound as Aussie soldiers stand around drinking beer and watching as their women are swept off their feet (quite literally taking flight) by the American GIs with their pleases and thank-yous.


Like all quality theatre, the work becomes a launching pad for much after-show discussion and sharing of stories from the past, with audience members overheard telling others about Cloudland’s coloured history and late night Deen Brothers demolition. Indeed, the show has an appealing authenticity, down to the finest detail, with lighting washing the stage with sepia-tinged warmth and clever use of props and shadow play to conjure images of flying. The soundscape is also noteworthy, especially in Act One’s very funny and inventive newsreel re-enactment.


Characters are archetypally recognisable, like Australians of a bygone “Cloudstreet” era, yet never does it seem like the show is re-treading old ground. QTC has garnered quite the first class cast and although beginning scenes are busy with many characters, key players soon emerge. Chief among them is Harriet Dyer as the feisty, foul-mouthed and excitable Patty, Danny’s best friend, who provides much of Act One’s comedy. As an aspiring writer living in a storyteller’s world in which everything is something else, Kruck also delivers a memorable coming-of-age performance of one who begins with innocence, naivety and enthusiasm, not unlike the city itself in terms of its world stage status.


As his earlier works have shown, Matthew Ryan knows how to write about history (“Kelly”) and can easily bring Brisbane to life (“Boy Girl Wall”) and “Brisbane” triumphs in this combination. Although it is clearly evocative of time and place, it is about sensibility as much as setting and characters. Like a sticky-taped scrapbook of memories, “Brisbane” serves as storage mechanism in which stories can be kept and importantly shared. Although the play’s official U.S. Guide to Australia states that Australians typically look to the future and not back to the past, in this instance, we must be thankful that this is not the case for within the nooks and crannies of our history lurk the most absorbing of theatre tales.

Gritty, gripping and game as Ned

Kelly (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast

March 13 – 14

Kelly (2)

“Kelly” opens in November 10, 1880. Ned Kelly (Steven Rooke) is in his prison cell, the day before he is due to be hanged, having been found guilty of the wilful murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. A priest enters to give him his last rites, however, the priest is soon revealed to be Dan Kelly (Kevin Spink) – Ned’s younger brother believed burnt to death at the gang’s final fateful stand against police at the Glenrowan Hotel. He has come to stay goodbye and set things right before fleeing to Queensland, seeking forgiveness from his older brother for his own cowardly part in the final confrontation with police. But first, Ned has some questions about how Steve Hart died.

Ned is unrelenting and defiant (“I choose the rope” … “I don’t want to pass quietly; I want to pass noisy as hell”) but also light-hearted in some of his brotherly taunts. Indeed, in his initial interactions with the prison guard (Anthony Standish) before Dan’s entry, he presents a barrage of blasphemous insults (“You’re so ugly that the loneliest dog in the world wouldn’t f**k your face”, authentically in keeping with his penchant for lyrical language and the tone of his 1879 Jerilderie Letter, dictated to Joe Byrne, in which he refers to the police as ignorant unicorns with puny cabbage heart looking faces.

Although this provides much of the play’s humour, it belies the depth of drama and consideration in this eloquent imagining. And there is much eloquence to Matthew Ryan’s script, which is witty, dramatic and thoroughly well-written, with clever foreshadowing in Ned’s pondering of possible final words and disgust with the death mask made after Mad Dan Morgan’s execution. And one can only anticipate what he comes up with in next month’s “Brisbane”, the play he has been commissioned by QTC to write about Brisbane during World War Two.

“So what’s this about anyway?” I amusingly heard someone in the row behind ask as the show was about to begin. Perhaps you do need some prior knowledge. History reveals that Dan and Ned disagreed and has also brought forth the myth that Dan survived Glenrowan and fled to Queensland (no less than four men claimed to be Dan Kelly at the end of their lives, the show’s program reveals). And there is also long-held rumour of a homosexual relationship between Dan and Steve Hart, another member of the infamous gang. The only thing missing is acknowledgement of the political nature of Kelly’s plight and his belief that that Irish Australians had to throw off the yoke of oppressive British colonialism to secure their rights, which is only hinted at in throwaway lines.

Under Todd MacDonald’s direction, “Kelly” is full of dramatic moments as Dan confronts Ned for putting a death sentence on the gang members’ heads through his actions at Stringybark Creek. And as the impulsive and full of self-importance Ned, Rooke is fearless, bringing the character to raging life, despite the barrier of shackled hands. “Read the newspaper,” he says with undeniable presence; “I’m a national hero”. Indeed, each of the three actors puts in a sterling performance, even Anthony Standish, who doubles and triples as backstory characters to present a layman’s view, as well as reappearing as the gleeful guard who taunts Ned with details of his impending fate

“Kelly” is certainly an intimate show and the staging is appropriately simple in its minimalism, with the action taking place in a wall-less raked box of a cell, almost like a boxing ring, about which the brothers dance around before they square off. This is enhanced by Ben Hughes’ beautiful lighting, which warms the moments of recollection in subtle transition from the reality of grey-tinged goal life.

Kelly (1)

As the tale of a man whose story has outgrown his life, “Kelly” has all the elements of great tragedy and high drama, which makes it an entirely engaging theatre experience. Told with such intimacy, this take of the fractured band of brothers, serves only to remind audience members that this is the story of a young man (Ned was just 25 when he died). While initially Ned is positioned sympathetically, through recall of his heroism in saving a young boy from drowning, he is also presented as a character of little remorse, wanting burial in consecrated ground, not to save his soul but because he deserves it. (“You killed people!” Dan reminds him. “But they weren’t very nice,” Ned replies.) Similarly, the audience is presented with two possible, equally powerful versions of Fitzpatrick’s last moments at Stringybark Creek, allowing audience members to come to their own conclusions about Ned’s place as national hero or glorified horse thief. In doing so, “Kelly” boldly presents its hypothetical story in a gritty, gripping manner that makes it a must-see Australian work.