November 01, 1992

Roses and Briars

Yellow Roses
by Roxxy Bent

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

The Festival Centre Trust has called its Space program Brave New Works and Yellow Roses is undoubtedly both new and brave. Roxxy Bent’s writing is familiar to Vitalstatistix’ regular audience- her plays have a nicely loony, acute-angle feel about them. The humour is often a slow-burner, or so slight you miss it- or the actor does. Waiting for Annette and the purpose-built Florence Who? are good examples of the Bent Style. An earlier play, A Stitch in Time, was even daggier. A lot of it didn’t work and the plot got into the next paddock but at the centre was interesting, quirkily subversive humour.

Yellow Roses is her bid at a wider audience and it is even being promoted as a feel-different feelgood. The idea is terrific. Use a sit-com format- what, in fact, might be the structure of a Williamson play- and then load it with your team’s point of view. It’s about a couple in domestic disharmony but Gloria and Hilary happen to be lesbian. They suffer constant intrusions from the family and sundry others- Freddy, a younger brother ricocheting about in the hip-hop gay scene, Alba, Hilary’s mother, who had eight hours infidelity thirty years ago and has never been allowed to forget it, Belle, a former neighbour- a stressed-out dysfunctional eater who has left the muscle-bound Gordon and her job in equal opportunity and flown in from Brisbane, and Nicki, a cop who wants to come out but no-one wants to know. It’s a bit like Orton for our times and full of dark wit about modern manners.

But a single play can only carry so much cargo and a comedy only so much business before it reaches the plimsoll line. Yellow Roses is well over its quota. The comedy is intended to be farcically frenetic, I can see that, but Yellow Roses virtually becomes two plays – Carry on Gender and an interesting, closely observed account of the stresses of modern relationship. It’s fairly clear which side I’m on. The play has some great dialogue – why fill it up with all this four -doors-and-into-the-garden stuff ? It’s hard to do and it’s not as funny as the tied in knots, lost in the right hemisphere inner reality of the characters.

Directed by Roxxy Bent and Phyllis Jane Rose, Yellow Roses moves uneasily between attempts at broad comedy and detailed character development. The opening scene for instance – Gloria working through her butcher paper list of things to do for Hilary’s fortieth birthday is delightfully, identifiably obsessive. Then June, the intellectually-challenged neighbour turns up, Freddy arrives in a gold lame cherub outfit and (when he has time to change), a cop lurks about in the driveway. It is fine as an idea -and funny in the telling- but ghastly in its execution and the play takes quarter of an hour to recover from it.

Because the styles haven’t been reconciled the performances are uncertain. When Paul Flannagan first flounces about as Freddy it is unclear what sort of a caricature he is. When the writing settles down so does he. Freddy is an interesting creation. He is half a generation younger than all the other goal-obsessed thirtysomethings. His is a different world but he doesn’t have to be Julian Clary- and he’s a post-pet shop boy so why have him humming Rodgers and Hammerstein ?.

Kate Roberts gives Gloria a strong presence which anchors the play, she has some good lines and makes the most of them. As Hilary, Sara Hardy flickers at times but in the final scenes, some of the best in the play, she finds her focus. Irene Tunis is funny as Belle- good writing, well delivered. Bridget Walters, always a conscientious actor, has some difficulty with June but as I said (despite a strong later speech) the character is too early in the morning for any of us. Paul Flanagan does his best as Freddy- although younger casting might have helped- but his accent as Nicki, the lovelorn cop, signalled one equal opportunity too many.

The set by Luke Cutler and Kathryn Sproul is serviceable and well-observed – although I wonder why, if it’s desirable to have literal props like newspapers and hommous, actors have to mime into imaginary mirrors. Maxine Le Guier’s lighting gets a bit fruity in the final scene and electrifying the rose bushes is a kitsch gag which needlessly works against the tenderness of the ending.

Despite some production run cuts, Yellow Roses still needs more pruning- lines that clunk , gratuitous detailing, overlong witticisms, discrepant characterisation and most of the physical business- no running in the garden, no Marx Sisters. So far it is work in progress- overwritten and under-directed. The play has a lot going for it but this production hasn’t yet made it bloom.

The Adelaide Review, November, 1992.

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