December 10, 1986

Adelaide Christmas – One Turkey, One Scrooge

The Unley Town Hall, Troupe’s HQ, has been dark for much of this year. After Gavan Strawhan’s The Last Drive-In On Earth, the company’s crowd-pleaser from the Adelaide Festival, they offered a stylish production of Caryl Churchill ‘s Top Girls before going into recess. Then The Floating Palais, also by Strawhan, a success from last year, was resuscitated for a tour around the traps to bring Troupe’s vigorous brand of left-thinking, participation theatre to a wider audience. The rest was silence until the present show, Bah Humbug! Another Christmas Carol by Gavan Strawhan, opened on November 9 to play for four weeks.

This time the company is really clutching at Strawhans with a show that is so thoroughly ill -conceived that it is hard to credit that it is a Troupe production . Further, as a new show with virtually a new company, there is a sense that Troupe is having a colossal identity crisis.

The formula elements are still there – two dimensional characterisations, music, dance, didactic speeches and the like, but much of the charm of earlier production rested on the familiarity and confidence of the ensemble, something which the present players obviously cannot exploit even when the show itself starts to unravel in front of them.

Bah Humbug! models itself on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with some changes to glorify the innocent and apostasize against Dickens ‘ failure to provide a socialist solution. It is undoubtedly true that Dickens stared into the face of Victorian industrialisation , and then looked away.

For instance, Hard Times with its splendid evocations of the alienation and inhumanity of work and education, nevertheless shows Dickens dithering about what is to be done when Stephen Blackpool rejects the opportunity for collective union action.

But having established that Dickens was a revisionist, it is not possible to gussy up his work to provide more ideologically comforting conclusions. You cannot rewrite Dickens and keep the force of the story as well – in short, it is not possible to have a Bob Cratchitt each way. Dickens ‘ genius lay in his capacity to shape stories which have mythic resonance; they are elemental because they are about love and death, cruelty and loneliness and, above all , the indomitability of human beings. Dickens may seem politically naive, but he was a consummate reader of the human heart.

So the elementary lessons in capital surplus, the radicalising of the Cratchitt daughters, the presence of Father Marx (ho ho), the coarsening of the story to show Scrooge priapicly drooling about money, and Bob Cratchitt’s simpering song “I Like to Grovel”, all seem to emphasise that Bah Humbug! is unequal to the force of Dickens’ original. “Parody is reactionary unless it can point to hope”, the programme says. But, more importantly, pastiche is impotent and complacent if it draws unfavourable comparison with its source.

The show has not been hammered into a unity either with a clear purpose or an adherence to the firm narrative of the story. And Director Venetia Schrueder has not managed to pace the show sufficiently or to provide continuity from the scattered acting areas. You need the eyes of Louis the fly to take it in. Neither has she succeeded in removing an air of righteousness from the production which is disturbingly like Sunday School. Even when most didactic, Troupe has never been this risibly humourless before.

Keith Sabri’s Scrooge has presence but too often seems to be doubling for Fagin which makes for an unfortunately reactionary subtext and is confusing at any rate, while Gil Douglas’s finer shading with Bob Cratchitt is undermined by the unremitting ridicule that the writer directs towards the part.

It is dispiriting to report on a Troupe show that has so little verve and purpose. Despite the rationalisations in the programme, Bah Humbug! is culturally even more remote than the Dickens story of snow and plum puddings. Like Troupe itself at the moment, it is in limbo between Christmas past and Christmas yet to come.


Meanwhile, The Stage Company, embattled with funding problems, will certainly not be wanting a turkey for Christmas, since they’ve had a few during the year. I have reported balefully on several of Stage’s productions this year, but the recent withholding of their $60,000 grant by the Australia Council is inexplicable.

For nearly ten years, Stage has been committed to presenting new Australian plays which with limited resources and the tenacity of Artistic Director John Noble, it has continued to do with notable success. Stage has always attracted high calibre performers and provided opportunities for local actors and writers as no other South Australian theatre company has been able or willing to do.

Their next production, Those Dear Departed- The Musical, is in many ways typical of what the Stage Company can put together. The show, apparently a kind of Rocky Horror for the gone-over, has been written by Steve J. Spears, directed by Noble, has music by Max Lambert and a strong cast including Jenny Vuletic, Tony Taylor, Audine Leith and Adelaide’s talented Peter Crossley, as well as Roger Howell (currently in the State Opera’s production of An Italian Girl in Algiers) and Glen Keenan, by all accounts an actor to watch.

I spoke to John Noble about Stage’s recent tribulations. He retains the demeanour of one who has faced the odd angry shot before, and has an actor ‘s discipline and commitment to the project in hand- one he quietly believes will secure the company’s reputation and position. Not that it should need to, with productions as varied as David Allen’s Cheapside, Janis Balodis’ Too Young for Ghosts, David Pownall’s Masterclass, Warwick Moss’s Down an Alley Filled with Cats and David Williamson’s Sons of Cain in the company’s recent repertoire.

The period up until rehearsals for Those Dear Departed began has been a busy one. For ten weeks John Noble has been workshopping plays for the 1987 season. Despite uncertainties about funding from the State Government as a result of the Theatre Board pulling the plug, Noble is adamant that Stage can trade out of present difficulties with successes over the next year.

The plays lined up for 1987 include Jim Cartwright’s Road, recently performed at the Royal Court in London, a piece which Noble describes as “very fine, aggressive theatre.” There will be a new play from Alma de Groen, and a show put together by Trevor Farrant with the working title Davey and Dyer based on the two great radio quiz masters. Another plan is to have a reciprocal deal with the Harvest Company for a staging of Clem Gorman’s adaptation of Facey’s A Fortunate Life. Another play which Noble has secured rights to is Made in Bangkok by Anthony Menghella, which deals with Western exploitation in Asia- a subject close to the Australian heart of darkness.

Noble sees these plays as having theatrical depth and offering departures of a kind that he wants Stage to explore. “We’ve had a shake up. When that happens you ask yourself – do I give up and do something else that has fewer worries, or do I stick with it? I want to stick with it and make it work. It is a terrific company, and we can still make a base here in South Australia.”

Fighting spirit from John Noble determined, as many theatregoers in Adelaide are, that the Stage Company will not become the dear departed.

P.S. Fighting spirit and commitment notwithstanding the late news is that State Government has followed the Australia Council, and withdrawn all funds from the Stage Company for 1987. The Company’s Board of Management is appealing against this decision.

Murray Bramwell

CentreStage, December 1986, pp.14- 15.

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