September 22, 2006

Home Truths


by Michael Gow

Queensland Theatre Company
and Griffin Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse
Until September 23, 2006.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

There can be few Australian plays as mercurial as Away. Written in the mid-Eighties, but set in the late Sixties, it focuses on three families going “away” for their summer holidays. It is full of affectionate retro-detail of Australian beach culture, but its central themes are of loss and death and the struggle to accept the inevitable and irrevocable. It is also a domestic Australian play which insouciantly includes magic realism and uses almost every arrow from the Shakespearean quiver – masque, fairies, soliloquy, a play within a play, and a force nine tempest.

Twenty years on from its first performance by Griffin Theatre, Away is on the road again and it is a most welcome inclusion in the State Theatre Company’s season. Now artistic director at the QTC, Michael Gow directs his own creation for the first time since 1992, bringing to it a fresh eye and a confident clarity.

A favourite text for school and amateur performances (and with a hundred thousand copies in print ) Away is a classic. But many productions plump for whimsy, opportunities for nostalgic kitsch and easy sentiment. In this version, designer Robert Kemp’s stage-within-a stage set (for Gow’s play-within- a-play ) frames the action in the school hall locations which bookend the action. He enjoys his chance for pop-up caravan parks, blonde Dusty wigs, florals and beige. But, fully aware that the perky visuals, Damien Cooper’s creamy lighting, and the lambent Mendelssohn theme are taking us in one direction, Gow steers the performances to express his darker purpose.

The cast is strong and more than willing to look for complexity in their task. The puckish Tom, in remission from cancer but facing an uncertain future, is both insightful and down-to-earth in Leon Cain’s likeable performance (he also does well as Rick, the bewildered young bridegroom) As Meg, Francesca Savige, is convincingly forthright as she stares down a difficult mother and later, some very special pleading from Tom. And, as Vic, Jim and Harry, Sue Dwyer, Richard Sydenham and Daniel Murphy find nuance and gentle humour as parents trying to keep an even keel.

There are two key performances, however, which give this production its particular strength. As Coral, Georgina Symes, has a willowy Kim Novak glamour along with her deep, alienated grief. Her questioning of her conscripted son’s death in Vietnam has a determined edge to it – even as her husband, Roy (played with convincing anguish by Joss McWilliam) is vainly trying to close his mind to doubt. Similarly, Barbara Lowing gives the role of Gwen, imperious mother of Meg and wife of long-suffering Jim, much greater reality than is often the case. Rather than the usual one-dimensional, carping Edna Everage stereotype, Gow has encouraged an interpretation of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, someone for whom affluence is no consolation for a previous deprivation.

This production is delightful and deeply satisfying – and powerfully renews the reputation of the play. The airy comedy is appealingly evident, as is the well-observed family detail. But this Away also delves the tragedy of premature death and that arduous path which Edgar describes in Lear – “Men must endure/ their going hence, even as their coming hither.” There is a sadness here which is neither mawkish nor misplaced. What is that word Coral is looking for in her soliloquy ? Alas.

“Darker makes it better” The Adelaide Review, No.301, September 22, 2006, p.14.

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