BWW Reviews: ONCE WE LIVED HERE, King's Head Theatre, April 4 2014
As generations of English cricketers have discovered, Australia is a hostile environment. To be fair, it's pretty hostile to Australians too - it's dusty, diamond hard land, recently afflicted by almost annual droughts, is reluctant to give a up a living to those who make their homes in The Bush. Fire too has become a hazard, sweeping through the tinder-dry country with no regard for its victims, animal, vegetable or human.
On this unpromising, uncompromisng earth, the McPhersons have carved a life for generations - but the 21st century is catching up with them. The man of the house was found dead ten years earlier and now the matriarch is now close to death too, throwing even more of the burden of the farm's upkeep on eldest daughter Amy.
When Claire's death seems close to hand, Amy is joined by her sister Lecy, a metropolitan PR "girl", and her brother Shaun, a loafer. All the old family tensions bubble to the surface, coming to a head when the farmhand who helped out Amy in more ways than one when her father died, pitches up to revive long extinguished hopes and suggest frightening possibilities. Like the farm's finances, the family's future is bleak - something must be done. But what?
Dean Bryant's musical has won awards back in Aus and it's not hard to see why. It's ambitious, provocative and (occasionally) funny, but its poignancy treads dangerously close to sentimentality and its characters wobble on the edge of caricature. Those flaws are not helped by the length of the production (two and a half hours including its interval), with its long-heralded climax a long time coming. Also, inexplicably, Mr Bryant has asked his very competent singers to perform at the volume required for the Sydney Opera House and not that suited to the home of UpClose Productions. Too much nuance in some melodic tunes and clever lyrics is lost in overly enthusiastic, overly shrill projection.
If Shaun Rennie (farmhand Burke) has the most pleasing voice in the ensemble, the best song - the second half opener, a coarse, pantomimish (and hilarious) "We like it that way" - is delivered by the four McPhersons. Melle Stewart (Amy), gallumping around in dungarees trying to do the right thing by her departed father, is always on the edge of tears, but convinces in Amy's commitment to her cause and pain at her loss. Belinda Wollaston gets the best lines as the sensitivity-free zone footballer's WAG Lecy, and Iestyn Arwel (Shaun) is at his best in flashback scenes where he becomes a 13-year-old instantly with a shrug of the shoulders. It's a shame we don't see more of Simone Craddock's Claire in flashback, as she is a little wasted when no more than a little wasted on morphine, standing at death's door.
It's a long way from the scrublands of rural Victoria to London (after all, it's quite a way to Melbourne) and that distance sometimes shows, but families will always grow apart, always harbour deep secrets, always find that the future looks scary if viewed solely from the perspective of the past. With a more sympathetic staging, those themes would emerge more satisfyingly and the musical's strengths show more clearly.