June 02, 2006

Rising to robust demands


Mr Bailey’s Minder

By Debra Oswald

Directors’ Choice Season

Holden Street Theatres

The Studio

Until 10 June.

Murray Bramwell

Leo Bailey –  the chaotic, alcoholic, undeniably gifted, painter at the centre of Debra Oswald’s play – is an identikit of any number of Aussie painters of the past thirty years. The blokes, that is, who lived large, selfish, womanizing lives, squandered their money and fame, and found themselves with few friends to speak of, and even fewer family members to speak to. Bailey is one of those. In Debra Oswald’s play he is living in poor health, ill temper, and under sufferance from his daughter Margo, whom he treats abominably. Things start to turn when Therese, a young woman with a chequered past, is hired as his carer, and a local carpenter, Karl, also adds some mending of his own.

Debra Oswald, prolific as a scriptwriter and novelist for young people, always writes with vibrant exuberance. It was there in her first play, Dags, and later in Gary’s House and Sweet Road – both of which have been staged  by State Theatre. But Mr Bailey’s Minder, which premiered at Griffin Theatre in 2004,  and is now at Martha Lott’s Holden Street Theatres as part of the Directors’ Choice season, is Oswald’s best play to date.

Holden Street’s Studio has been transformed by designer Kerry Reid into a brightly daubed artist’s studio. Improvised murals and unframed canvases hang left and right, a New Guinean mask looks impassively outwards and the floor is a litter of bottles, books and empty pizza boxes. Director Geoff Crowhurst has given this play a strong visual reality and found a cast that is ready to meet the robust demands of Oswald’s rollicking story.

On second night, with a small house, I don’t think I am seeing this production at its best. There are jitters – lost lines, a tendency to raise voices to find intensity and urgency, some awkwardness in the physical staging – but they should soon  settle and highlight instead the commitment and sincerity of the performances. David Kendall, as Leo, is plenty willing to present the dislikeable aspects of a man with a bitter tongue and boorish self pity. The unfolding of other more sober reflections is achieved only sparingly and offsets any easy sentimentality lurking in the text. Similarly Anna Linarello, in the difficult role as the neglected daughter Margo, overcomes an initial flatness to reveal, in her final scene, a child still wounded in adult life. Nathan O’Keefe, briefly one dimensional as the con-man Gavin, settles into the warmly written role of Karl, a man whose kindness gradually releases the better nature in both Mr Bailey and his minder.

Jacqueline Cook, ably carries the lead as Therese, a young woman with a raucous pragmatism shielding a brittle dignity and tender spirit. It is a strong and affecting performance and embodies well Debra Oswald’s restorative themes of reconciliation and forgiveness. Geoff Crowhurst has captured much that is perceptive and heartfelt in Mr Bailey’s Minder. Now, he and his cast can trust the task and settle into the nuances and particulars of their discovery.

“Rising to robust demands”

The Adelaide Review, No.293, June 2, 2006, p.13.

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