August 26, 1989

Home Truths on the Range


Lost Weekend by John Romeril

State Theatre Company

The Space, Adelaide.

August, 1989.

A new work by John Romeril is always worth a look  and his latest for South Australia’s State Theatre Company is no exception. Lost Weekend is a quirky piece though, and neither its co-directors John Gaden and Ian Watson nor some of the performers seem to have quite got its measure. Even Romeril doesn’t seem to have decided how his ingredients should finally shake down. Perhaps it is precisely for  these reasons that, on reflection, the play gets curiouser and curiouser.

There are all kinds of Lost Weekends. Who could forget Ray Milland face down in his own memory loss, for instance.But Romeril’s play is about getting out of it in a quite different way. Somewhere on the road between Horsham and the Big Smoke, Margaret Risdon-Allyn and her husband Charles preside over the kind of stately pleasure dome that the squattocracy built back in the days of feudal labour  and Munchausen prices for the  wool clip. Now after its salad days entertaining Lola Montez and Mark Twain, politicians and socialites, Louis Esson and Norman Lindsay and others too numerous in the visitors’ book to name, Xanadu -as it is called with Coleridgean irony- has opened its doors to the carriage trade.

The first guests to arrive are Eric and Zelda -he is a  trade union heavy who has recently suffered a near-fatal stroke, she is the physio with the lamp who brought him back from the brink. She has also brought him to Xanadu for R and

R and a few D and M’s about their future.

In some ways Lost Weekend is like a cross between Fawlty Towers and Green Acres and it has been reported that Romeril reworked the play from an  idea he had for a sitcom. But although the play has a lightness of touch, including what can only be deliberately hoary,  sub-Footrot Flats farm jokes, there are more complex and darker purposes as well.

Charles Allyn is not just a country squire with a League of Rights haircut he is former career officer with the sort of recurrent bad vibes from Korea that Les Harding in Romeril’s The Floating World, brought back from the Burma railway. His wife Margaret has about as much class consciousness as Blanche Dubois, Eric gets a reflux of memories of his father’s humiliation as a sharefarmer in the Gippsland and Zelda watches helplessly while everyone plants  the kind of small  acorns from which mighty embolisms grow.

Designer Mary Moore has seized on the absurdist, hallucinatory elements in Romeril’s text and produced a set which is serviceably naturalistic and yet has all the unreality of Magritte. There is a preponderance of turf the colour of snooker baize which even invades the interiors with  moss creeping up the legs of the colonial furniture. Elsewhere  plough discs hang like Damocles over the actors heads while at the back of the set  an astro-turf  catwalk straddles above a  full-size car with the  fender cut away. The  overall effect, appropriately,  is like an exploded diagram in a repair manual.

But despite a formal gloaming tableau at the end of Act One and effective use of spots in the second half, neither John Comeadow’s lighting nor the direction and performances are sufficiently adacious either for the set or, more importantly, the almost expressionistic elements in the best of the writing. Directors John Gaden, who has also dealt himself in to play Charles, and Ian Watson seem tentative with Romeril’s mixed style and the result is a touch too benign and genteel.Romeril’s text is a bit lumpy and a bit speechy but it calls both for more extravagance and political commitment than it gets  here.

These uncertainties touch some of the performances as well. Daphne Grey, usually a strong performer, looks to a rep style which doesn’t suit, although her lines, like some of Michelle Fawdon’s as Zelda, could do with a nip and tuck to get the rhythms right. Fawdon and newcomer Claire Jones are more at ease but it is the blokes who are better served in the play. Denis Moore is splendid as Eric, it is the best role but he is also inventive with it. He has subtlety, range and a presence which anchors the piece, the production is worth seeing just for that. John Gaden, after an edgy opening, produced a considered performance although his Charles could afford to be less dotty and more dangerous.

New Australian works, particularly commissions for State companies, have had a habit  recently of being quietly sent to the vet rather face mortication on the stage. Lost Weekend is an interesting new play which sits well in State’s achievements this year. It may not yet have received its definitive performance but it is certainly one to watch for.

Murray Bramwell

“Home Truths on the Range”, The Australian Financial Review, Friday, August 26, 1989.

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