December 01, 1991

Righting History

by Melissa Reeves
Red Shed Company
Red Shed, Cardwell St.
November, 1991.

The Red Shed’s latest – Sweetown, a new commission from Melissa Reeves – is their strongest show since Road. Their output has been rather patchy of late and, with their commitment to produce original work, they set a hard pace for themselves. This production marks not just a return to form, but a consolidation of their claim to being one of the leading alternative theatre companies in the country. Sweetown is set in a small Australian country centre in 1965. The good folk there belong to Apex and the CWA, the History Society and the Women’s Auxiliary. They are civic- minded souls with a sense of heritage and ‘enough holes in their collective memory to fill the Albert Hall. There were never any Aborigines living around Sweetown, they tell some visiting anthropologists.

That’s not what Jack Greg reckons but. He remembers a place out of town at Captain’s Flat that has some strange landforms and a very murky aura. When he finds some hinges, the only remnants from an old stockyard, he confirms it as the site of a massacre led by H.J. Jackson, a founder of Sweetown and, it turns out, forebear of the local squire, Alan Werther.

Melissa Reeves came upon something very like this in Real Life when researching the play in a small town in New South Wales – and it seems that when a few locals wanted to set up a memorial to those who had been murdered, it sundered the community overnight. But Sweetown is not merely a docudrama, Reeves develops these events further to create a dream play that is rich in its evocation of country culture and, while annotating the shame of history, points to a potentially regenerative future as well.

The Red Shed Company has served the play well with this production. Tim Maddock has lined the venue with corrugated iron and wooden benches and, just beyond the windows, created a cyclorama of sky and sunburnt countryside that has an ominous simplicity.

Director Cath McKinnon has given a rapid succession of scenes fluency, as the eight performers permutate through twenty five different characters. They play school kids, old ladies and slow-talking burghers, giving careful definition to each. Ulli Birve has an aged dignity as Val; Peter Finlay, a florid self-importance as Alan Werther; Eileen Darley’s Lilah is anxiously determined. Alex Hulse dithers as Ralph; Sally Hillyard forgets her mnemonics as the schoolteacher and Andrew Donovan’s Jack Greg is an Australian bloke ready to learn to live with the past in order to leave it behind. Joey Kennedy is wonderfully dotty as Coral and Michael Griffin is powerfully unsettling as the ubiquitous ghost of Jackson.

Melissa Reeves offered opportunities for character work in her previous winner, In Cahoots, but Sweetown is much less an exercise in whimsy. Even the satire, verging on Barry Humphries and Shirley Purvis as it does, serves a deeper purpose in a play that wisely finds substance to match the caricature. The expressionistic phantom and the midsummer madness of the townspeople, liberated by the acknowledgement of buried grief, give the play the kind of poetic complexity you find in Michael Gow’s Away, also a play set in the Sixties in order to unwrap the present.

This show has already had a successful country tour which has given added assurance to the Adelaide season. Melissa Reeves has written her best work to date. Sweetown deserves wide attention and with this production the Red Shed Company is definitely back in the pink.

“Righting History”, The Adelaide Review, No.95/6, December ,1991, p.38.

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