October 01, 1986

Reviews – October 1986

While Pravda was still offering unsoothing sooth in the Festival Centre Playhouse, The State Theatre Company launched its next venture, Hannie Rayson’s Room to Move, into the Space. It’s been donkey’s years since State have used this more informal, intimate acting area, and there was maybe a touch of
truancy as the players escaped the stern proscenium of the main venue.

Rayson’s play certainly gives room to move. It is an interesting piece with bags to commend it, but the writer does not always trust her hunches so that her comedy of manners deteriorates at times into comedy of mannerisms.

Peggy Hamilton (Barbara West) is sixtyish a widow with a daughter Virginia (Jane Menelaus) and Roger (Terence Crawford). They in turn have spouse persons Howard (Henry Salter) and Ellie(Cathrine Lynch). Enter Bernie, Peggy’s boarder, in need of personal space for a heart that’s lately’ seen a bit much

It’s a nice idea, especially since the initial focus is on Peggy and her touchingly well-observed efforts to find sufficiency in solitude and maintain links with her adult children who are floundering in the shark tanks of marital discord. Buas the play extends to intrigues between Bernie and Virginia, and Bernie and Ellie we move perilously close towards bedroom farce.

Rayson’s satire is at times acidulous and then unaccountably arch as the play circumscribes the domestic lives of the youngish and the restless, the crises and croissants of yuppies in torment. The
shifts in the script from the splenetic to the affectionate do however, reveal the genuine attempts by Hannie Rayson not to merely describe progressive values but to incorprate them as matters of fact.

It is refreshing in the face of so much troglodyte theatre to find a writer who reflects feminist values as unselfconsciously as she can. But it makes us notice all the more when the earnestness and clichés intrude. Nevertheless Room to Move gives scope for examination of real questions of self and relationship, and wittily and graciously acknowledges the human fecklessness which clouds the most dedicated attempts to enact ideology.

Barbara West gives a strong performance as Peggy, bringing a convincing blend of fragility and resilience to the part which neatly offsets the egotism of the other characters. Jane Menelaus is
nearly perfect as Virginia – her presence so assured one takes it almost for granted; and Henry Salter’s Howard, the history man with a twinge of Tony Hancock, is also a fine performance. Stewart Stubbs is characteristically querulous as Bernie but provides some pleasing comic shading which worked well in the scenes with Barbara West in particular.

At one point, Bernie, reading a film script, asks “Do the men have any redeeming features or are they just deadshits?” It is a question one might ask about the character of Roger, the buttoned-down solicitor, set in concrete in his thirties and hectoring his young wife with moustache-twirling nastiness.Terence Crawford works hard to draw us close to the character, but the audience remains content to hiss him as he does everything but tie poor Ellie to the railway track. In short-circuiting one of the main characters into crude parody Rayson unsettles the fine balance she works towards- in fact, getting the “straight”
character right is more important than doing justice to the more sympathetic young trendies in the play.

Ken Wilby’s set is suitably bonsai for the Space, with everything including the kitchen sink revolving in the back drop, while at the front of the stage characters are conveyed away in their armchairs a shade too briskly at times. The costumes are a touch too Jag and Harry Who to be true but as always Wilby’s
work is deft and stylish.

Room to Move has much to offer with Lindy Davies’ firm but amiable direction and Hannie Rayson’s genuine instinct for contemporary issues. The script could use some sharpening and some of its more prolix moments could go for burton but it touches real nerve-end and we should look forward to State’s
further collaborations with Rayson’s d’etre!

The Space also provided the venue for the third of the Stage Company’s triple bill of South Australian plays, The Humble Doctor by Rob George. As I have said before, Stage have not had an inspiring
season, and The Humble Doctor is no panacea for its ailing fortunes. It is not a bad play but, although it is faint praise one can only say, it is just competent.

George has come across some interesting detail about the German community in the Hahndorf-Klemzig area in South Australia in the mid 30’s, indicating that not only were there Nazis in the woodshed but a State parliamentarian was flirting with the boys in brown as well. This is fascinating stuff but any number of real-life situations show that terrible consequences can arise from ridiculous circumstances, and they don’t in themselves guarantee dramatic interest.

The playwright has sought unconvincingly to show the rise of Nazism in microcosm in charting the political and moral corruption of Gunther Eberhardt, a medical practitioner in Hahndorf. Married to Amy Mueller, sister of a State MP, he is connected to drongoes in high places and proceeds to use German-Australian cultural exchange in the Centenary year, 1936, as an occasion for sending seditious messages to the low life of the German High Command.

George concedes that the events are both repugnant and laughable but cannot balance them sufficiently to prevent a steady and predictably melodramatic decline in the play, as Gunther’s anti-semitic outbursts, blackmail attemptsand general nastiness all become evident. He even abandons his wife to take up with Elsa, the Frau Fatale who is going to supply Aryan progeny for the New Order in old Ambleside.

As Gunther, Robbie McGregor IS as convincing as the material will allow. Director John Noble has wisely avoided Colonel Klink accents, but while the play spares us the goose-stepping it doesn’t give us goose-bumps either. There is lack of intensity in the material as Maureen Sherlock, as Amy, is seen
struggling with the problem of being an Associate Nazi in charge of struedel when only the chaps get to wear the snazzy armbands. There is also an intrusive use of anachronistic language – talk of “options” for instance – and someone says “Is it just something everyone picked up on?” The effect is a flattening of mood; it doesn’t usefully dislocate our sense of history, it just registers as negligent.

John Senczuk’s one-size-doesn’t-quite-fit- anything set is doing double duty from Sunrise Over Angie East. It is more effective in The Humble Doctor but despite being a workable acting area it cannot be said to be up to his usual standard. In The Humble Doctor, Rob George has used curious local material but he has ·failed to produce memorable theatre.

The Magpie Theatre has also been roosting in the Space recently, between seasons in junior primary schools and after a highly successful tour to Penang, The Magpies, continuing their highly creative association with playwright David Holman, have been staging his Soloman and The Big Cat, a play for
small poppies about wildlife conservation in Tanzania.

It has all of Holman’s Theatrical trademarks- clarity, classic structure and memorable and unexpected detail. Wearing Julie Lynch’s effectively simple masks, the players create a veritable national park of activity for groups of spellbound littlies sitting in a circle in the acting area. Administrator Isobel Hawson delightedly reports that when Soloman played to audiences of up to
two thousand in Penang, the response was equally electrifying… more proof of the universality of Holman’s work.

Director Chris Johnson keeps the play intimate and involving, and the actors relate warmly and without condescension. Michael Habib is engaging as Soloman with strong support from Debra Fordham, Sharon LeRay, Geraldine Simmons, Craig Elliott and Jeny Enaline. Natasha Moszenin’s music for chimesand drum threads through the production, enhancing its pace and charm.

Another show which has been performed beyond the Space but is very much of our time is Junction Theatre Company’s production of Adelaide playwright, Mij Tanith’s Just Write. It premiered recently to the Tenth National Adult Literacy Conference and received a standing ovation. This is not surprising since rarely would a group of professionals have seen a work which so succinctly and forcefully highlights not – only the problems they seek to remedy but the political problems of policy and
funding as well.

Director Malcolm Blaylock balances Tanith’s neatly etched vignettes with a series of songs composed by Irene Tunis, who also appears in the play. Chris Willems has provided an aptly minimal and nomadic design for a show that is mostly going around the traps. In fact ,there have been very few public performances at Junction’s HQ in Mile End.

The play’s message is direct – one in ten Australians can’t read simple sentences,
thus suffering a myriad of silent indignities and disadvantages. Tom, (David Burchall) is a foreman facing a retirement when he can’t even read the paper, his wife helps to cover for him socially,
but it’s time for him to do something himself, while Dimi (Irene Tunis) is a process worker whose husband fears that she’ll ‘learn to read the telephone book/ and become someone else’s cook ‘
as she sardonically sings in “He likes me Dumb”. Davie, (Mark Reedman) is 29 and still with his claustrophobic parents, a withdrawn TV addict, who dreams of sitting his written test for a licence to
drive away from his cuckoo’s nest. Heather, (Michelle Childs) is an Aboriginal woman, neglected in school and seeking to re-enter the workforce with improved skills.

Mij Tanith , an ESL teacher herself, has a penetrating understanding of the issues, and the part-time teacher , Glenda (played by ex-Troupe actor Catherine Fitzgerald) reflects an insider’s frustration
with the cynicism with which adult literacy is often treated.

Just Write is a sharp and insightful piece which, in the best tradition of didactic theatre, enacts the issues rather than merely harping about them. Junction can be pleased with this production and they are now in big demand to tour interstate, as well as to play the local TAFE colleges and other community groups. Mij Tanith exhorts us artfully not to just read but to read between the lines and she does so vividly and with assurance.

Murray Bramwell

CentreStage Australia, October, 1986, pp. 14- 15.

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