September 01, 1987

Blood Sports

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge – Patch Theatre Company
A Sporting Chance – Magpie Theatre Company
Blood Relations – Sydney Theatre Company/State Theatre Company

Having conjured up Possum Magic, South Australian writer Mem Fox and illustrator Julie Vivas followed with another highly successful picture book, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. It has now been adapted for the stage by Sheryn Dee and Mem Fox and presented by the Patch Theatre Company in the Festival Centre Space.

Wilfrid has played to packed houses pre-sold weeks ago to little tackers from kindergartens and junior primary schools, as Patch again discovers the enormous demand for theatre for the very young. This time there is no doubting the commercial success of the show and the word is that the Festival Centre Trust is interested in it as a travelling property.

Director Christine Anketell has enlisted Michele Spooner and Peter Seaborn of Handspan to develop full-sized puppets for the production. The play centres around the small boy with the large name and his elderly friends the Misses Cooper and Mitchell and Messrs Hosking, Tippett and Drysdale. Wilfrid discovers that Miss Cooper is losing her memory and sets about to discover what memories are made of. It turns out they’re not borrowed or blue, but warm and long ago, funny and sad. It’s an endearing idea , even if the historical range is waspishly narrow · ANZACs and cricket, fiancees and the Old Country. Perhaps market research shows that grandparents buy a lot of the picture books these days.

Christine Anketell has assembled some proven talent with Spooner and Seaborn, designer Kathryn Sproul and composer Natasha Moszenin, but the result is a mixed success. It, of course, delights young audiences but they get a bit twitchy with the wordiness of the text. While details, such as Wilfrid’s bedroom with puppet toys on the wall, work well, the extensive decking and the shape of the acting area make the production rather one-dimensional something it can ill· afford with visible actors operating puppets.

As Wilfrid , Shane McNeil repeats to excess his lead role in the Red Shed’s recent Bawky Play. It is exacting work to capture a child’s mannerisms, and McNeil’s gestures become exaggerated to the point where you’d think Wilfrid had a bad case of worms. His boisterousness and skateboard capering become tiresome after a time, especially since, actually, small children often behave with exaggerated concern and sensitivity towards old people.

Peter Seaborn operates a variety of characters with deceptive ease and Emma Salter, particularly as the fragile old Miss Cooper finds a touching delicacy. Karen Inwood’s Miss Mitchell speaks excruciating Irish, but her activity board puppets are full of beans. Patch has again addressed a pre-school audience, but under Christine Anketell ‘s direction their productions continue to be broader than they need be. The children attending performances are very young but they are not deaf or dim-witted. With some finer shading Wilfred et al could give small fry a much more memorable first experience of theatre.


Sydney writer and actor Katherine Thomson was commissioned by Magpie, the young people’s wing of the State Theatre Company, to write an equal op opus for upper primary and lower secondary school students. University tests and Dale Spender show that diminished self image and tyrannical peer attitudes in the pre-teen and pubescent years can undermine learning and social adjustment, particularly for girls and one area where this is especially evident is in sport.

A Sporting Chance examines the lot of four junior high school kids all drawn from Katherine’s conversations with local students. Michelle wants to play footy but neither the boys nor the coach are too keen. Ferret is a footy star whose · Dad has just left home again. Terry is physically awkward but secretly jogs with a rucksack on his back as a character-building mortification of the flesh, while Nancy has a sporty mum but she’s not too crash hot herself, and, while climbing, find herself halfway down a cliff trying to clamber back to safety.

The situations are highly individualised – perhaps a bit too quirky , life is too weird for fiction – but they provide opportunities for examining the indignities and paradoxes of winning and losing for the students, their parents and friends.

Director Chris Johnson has drawn together the somewhat diffuse strands of the narrative with considerable flair , and the result is some of Magpie’s most stylish work in a while. The movement, particularly as Nancy ascends the cliff face of coloured steel chairs is inventive and theatrically pleasing.

Old hands Michael Habib and Sharon le Ray (memorable as Nancy) are joined by new Magpies Michael Kitschke and Annabel Giles, making this complement one of the most cohesive and skilful ensembles the company has seen. Designers Ken Wilby and Mark Thompson have come up with a compact and versatile set with vivid, practical props, and Ian Farr’s music, consisting of whistles, horn s and hockey stick percussion, is a hoot.

A Sporting Chance represents an engaging collaboration of talents dealing with issues of considerable moment. Despite some awkwardness, Katherine Thompson’s script is appealing; amusing and thoughtful and the Magpies themselves are obviously in full flight.


Despite some tightening and trimming for the Adelaide season it would seem that the STC’s Blood Relations is still in need of a major transfusion . David Malouf is a remarkable novelist but it is regrettable to note that his strengths in fiction do not sustain him in his first script for the theatre.

There never were guarantees that ·fiction and drama could be transferable genres. A novelist can exercise total control over his work, which is, after all, a world of words marshalled in ways to entice and enchant. But the dramatist cannot rest on the verbals alone and, what’s more, the script is then at the tender mercy of sub-contractors. In this instance, Jim Sharman has not provided a convincing dramatic structure for Malouf’s work, so the current production can at best be seen as a pallid version of an uncertain text .

The programme notes make pre- emptive strikes in favour of anti-naturalist drama as though audience reaction to Blood Relations might be compared to the first night of The Rite of Spring. In fact it is the very familiarity of the mythic/ poetic devices in the play that is troubling. For a start, its connection to The Tempest is narrowly parodic and when Malouf actually invokes a speech by Caliban we feel only the disparity between texts.

In centering on Willy McGregor, alias William LaFarge, alias Spiro Kyriakou, Malouf calls us to consider yet another flawed Titan. Willy after a life of crime and corporate plunder has retired to his banana lounge on the NW coast where he tethers his Miranda and Caliban waiting for the Ferdinands and Trinculos to arrive.

Questions about McGregor’s life and works are raised but languidly dismissed. Dash and McClucky, escapees from The Mavis Bramston Show, provide a comic turn as journalists investigating McGregor’s dodgy past, but with their grotesque fecklessness all political edge is lost. Finally, nobody, not even Malouf wants to call Willy to reckoning. There are plenty of rhetorical encounters- but they have neither emotional nor metaphoric conviction. The isle is full of noises but they signify very little.

As McGregor ,John Wood gives a strong performance but he is too avuncular, a kind of domestic grump, bemused by the carryings-on of the decadent little Sydney folk. You don’t really get the sense that this man is a knee-capper in retirement. The parallels with The Tempest itself should have made him fiercer and darker. Heather Mitchell does the Miranda stuff well enough, although her lines are astonishingly lame, but as the shade of Tessa, Willy’s dead wife, she is as lost as the play itself.

As Kit, Dinny and Edward, Paul Goddard , Laurence Clifford and David Pledger give indifferent performances, vitiated by self-conscious speeches and a lot of jumping about getting their T-shirts wet. Maggie Kirkpatrick, as Hilda the housekeeper, gives clearer definition, but Deborah Kennedy’s breathless McClucky successfully discredits any real political or ethical enquiry in the play. Geoff Morrell turns Dash into a great party piece – if you are going to go full fathom five, you might as well do it in style.

Jim Sharman has permitted Blood Relations to be submerged by a succession of theatrical whimsies that are neither amusing nor provocative, while Tim Ferrier’s set is limiting and oddly given to illusionist caprices such as the risible rainstorm from the flies. When Willy is supposed to be wandering the turbulent Kimberley coast, we see him carefully padding around a rectangular fish pond. Despite all the feigned energy and physicality in the performances, the set is profoundly inhibiting.

At the moment Blood Relations would need to suffer quite a sea change to be worthy of the considerable talents involved in its production.

Murray Bramwell

CentreStage Australia, September, 1987, pp.18-19.

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