September 01, 1989

Cold Comfort Farm


Lost Weekend

By John Romeril

State Theatre Company

Space, August, 1989.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

John Romeril has been writing for the theatre for more than twenty years. Beginning with the APG at the Pram Factory in Melbourne he was central to their importance and success with  a new Australian drama which, to coin a furphy, was temper socialist,bias offensively Carlton. During that time and since Romeril has cranked out a lot of work, of which, Mrs Thally F and The Floating World have become immortal, and much else, including the Flinders Drama Centre/ Troupe production of The Kelly Dance,  has made exceptional theatre. And even if the jury is still out on the matter of Jonah Jones and Manning Clark’s  History of the War between Sydney and Melbourne, no-one could call Romeril a museum piece – especially with his latest for State, Lost Weekend.

Neither the play, nor State’s production,  are without their problems but, unlike so many new works, they are interesting ones. When so many productions get so smoothed over and homogenised, it is almost refreshing to find elements in Lost Weekend at odds with one another, stylistically and in Romeril’s often over-written text. It’s that sort of play, though, one person’s rich is another’s preachy and cluttered.

Lost Weekends used to make us think of Ray Milland on the sauce with nothing to show for it but an academy award. Now, of course, they mean spending quality time with a significant other at one of  those rural rookery nooks you find advertised in the  very columns of this paper. In Romeril’s play, somewhere out on the track between Horsham and Sunshine, Margaret Risdon-Allyn and her husband Charles have opened their stately pleasure dome, Xanadu, to the carriage trade. Built in the days when the wool clip was worth more than Poland, old Xanadu was once the place for every damsel with a dulcimer – Lola Montez and Mark Twain called in, so did Esson and Lindsay and all manner of parliamentarians and celebs. Now it’s bed, breakfast, the utmost discretion and silver plate, bone china and interesting walks all with A Story Attached.

First to visit the Risdon-Allyns are Eric and Zelda. He is a unionist recovering from a near-fatal stroke, she is the physiotherapist who got him moving again. Now it’s love and they’ve buzzed off to Xanadu for some D and M’s under the incense bearing trees. If, so far,  this sounds rather like a mixture of Green Acres and Fawlty Towers, then the reports could be true that Romeril adapted his play from an idea for a sitcom. But despite some shaggy sheepdog humour the play is quite a bit more than love among the cowpats.

Charles Allyn, it turns out, is not just a moleskin squire with a League of Rights haircut, he is a former career officer who has brought back from Korea the same sort of psychic souvenirs that Les Harding, in The Floating World, got from the Burma Railway. Meanwhile, his wife, Margaret, starchy and long-suffering, is determined to hang on to Tara and never  be poor again- Charles, preoccupied with the North Koreans on his boundary fence, has lost most of the stock. All this brings out memories of feudal Gippsland for Eric while Zelda watches helplessly as boys will be boys, wives will be wives and the firearms get pointed at the guests.

With her design, Mary Moore has made the most of the hallucinatory, absurdist aspects of the play while still providing a set sufficiently naturalistic to serve the almost filmic requirements of the action. The result is like a Magritte painting, hard-edged with a large expanse of turf the colour of snooker baize which has even   invaded the drawing room, inching up the legs of the piano and colonial furniture. Plough discs hang like menacing chandeliers and, at the back of the set, a car with its fender cut away adds further to an effect which is both comic and disturbing.

The rest of the production is less forthright with the possibilities of the play.Neither  John Comeadow’s lighting, with the exceptions of a twilight tableau at the end of Act One and some interrogatory spots in the later stages of the action, nor the direction and performances are as audacious as they might be. The text is dollopy, certainly, and the speeches get earnest and ,yes, overtly political,but directors John Gaden and Ian Watson do not solve this by being tentative or benignly genteel.

The performances are similarly hesitant. Again, the play doesn’t always help – the women’s roles are less defined than the male leads and the  actors must work accordingly. Daphne Grey was uncharacteristically stagey, on first night anyway, Michelle Fawdon does battle with some awkward rhythms in her lines for Zelda and newcomer Claire Jones plays Therese, the young waitress. As Eric, Denis Moore makes the most of the best role and presents a droll, detailed performance. Comic, but also reflective it is good to see Moore’s work in Adelaide again. John Gaden plays Charles Allyn with the right tetchiness but not quite enough angst.I can see why though, not even Romeril has quite figured how far over the top to go.

With so many recent commissions being taken out to the back paddock to be shot, it is good to see Lost Weekend reach the stage. It may well benefit from more revision and State’s version is probably not definitive but it’s a worthwhile production and a reminder that Romeril still has plenty to say.

“Cold Comfort Farm” The Adelaide Review, No.67. September, 1989, pp.32-3.

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