July 01, 1998


Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre


Up the Road

John Harding

Company B Belvoir/Playbox


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It is very rarely that we go to the theatre and experience the immediacy of issues of the day. But that is what it was like to see Company B Belvoir’s production of John Harding’s Up the Road just three days after the Queensland election. Not that the play has been contrived for relevance or, even, that  anyone could have predicted, when it was listed for revival on the Playing Australia national circuit, that it would be so strikingly personal and particular.

Up the Road is set in a Koori mission community, named Flat Creek. The death of Uncle Kenny, one of the elders, brings Ian Sampson, now working in Canberra in a senior post in Aboriginal Affairs, back to Aunt Sissy, his adoptive mother, and a life he left behind some ten years earlier. The story is a familiar one. Leaving small town life to go to the big smoke. Not looking back and re-making yourself– only to be haunted by the road not taken. Ian, one of two brothers raised by Kenny and Sissy, is the one who got away. His brother Nat, like many young Kooris, dies young and violently at the hands of the police.

Harding’s text and Neil Armfield’s shrewd direction engage difficult subjects with playfulness and flair. Up the Road has much of the exuberance and stylistic unpredictability of Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae. Rather than confine itself to fourth-wall naturalism the production takes pleasure in being artfully ramshackle.

Brian Thomson’s simplifed set is a white box with a lino floor, an old sofa and a red formica chrome table and chairs which double as kitchen, office and, with the hasty addition of some Vic Bitter towelling, a front bar. The area above the acting space is festooned with land rights bunting and, high on a platform, musician Wayne Freer sits surrounded by instruments, backed up by other performers, rotating on percussion, guitar, keyboards and anything else which seems to suit the situation.

In the best tradition of the late Bertolt, the artifice of the theatre is in full view. Each scene is introduced by Irma Woods as Liddy, describing stage directions and character details. It is an obvious enough thing to do but it is surprisingly disarming, adding pace and propelling the narrative. Similarly, music is integral. After a section of dialogue, Bradley Byquar, playing Charlie, is left alone to reflect. Wayne Freer’s guitar chords repeat themselves as Byquar puts on a reluctant grimace – ” Aw, it looks like I’ve gotta sing now.” This kind of thing can often be the last word in self-consciousness on stage, but the performers and their accomplished director calculate it splendidly.

As the man caught between cultures, Glenn Shea plays Ian Sampson unsparingly. His efforts to reclaim recognition back at the “mish” have an edginess that is thoroughly believable. Bradley Byquar’s Charlie is also a sharply drawn portrait of a young man whose ability is undercut by cynicism. He is critical of Greg Hidcombe, the whitefella advisor (played by ever reliable Paul Blackwell, again finding success along that fine line between comedy and sentiment) but he will only reluctantly commit himself to a role in the community.

In Harding’s play it is the women who provide constancy and leadership. Aunt Sissy, played with unvarnished sincerity by Lillian Crombie, is the anchor for many flighty souls. Not least Sampson, who is still writing messages in his filofax to his mysterious Delilah, his childhood sweetheart Susan Lockerbee, memorably presented in a gracefully understated performance from Ningali Josie Lawford.

Much of the energy of the production comes from Irma Woods’s capering performance as Liddy. Not only does she bring zip to the links between scenes but her loopy comedy lifts and reframes the sombre themes in Harding’s play. As Charlie Cardiff, the talented Bradley Byquar also creates a distinctive freshness as an able but disaffected young man who neither wants to go up the road to further his ambitions, nor stay at Flat Creek under the paternalistic direction of the feckless Greg.

Up the Road is rather like an Ian Abdulla painting, full of vivid detail and inscribed with innocent memory. It is also mindful of the way things really are. Of course Ian Sampson would go back to Canberra after the funeral and various story lines would remain unthreaded and unfulfilled. But when Aunt Sissy summons the characters back for a more upbeat, romantic ending, it has unexpected power and feeling. The final scene is self-satiric and whimsical but it also says these things don’t need to be so; there are other ways to go. Given the present paralysis in many aspects of our public life, John Harding’s optimism is both precious and timely.

The Adelaide Review, 178, July, 1998, p. 30-1.

1 Comment »

  1. A very good review which i agree with 100%. Thanks for helping get the story out.

    Comment by James Freeman — October 9, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

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