Review: THE PIG IRON PEOPLE at St. Jude's Hall

At an election night party, Nick meets April.

By: Nov. 14, 2021
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Review: THE PIG IRON PEOPLE at St. Jude's Hall Reviewed by Eddy Knight and Justene Knight.

I was expecting The Pig Iron People, presented by the St Jude's Players, to be funny, given that it was written by John Doyle, aka 'Rampaging Roy Slaven' of treasured memory and, at moments, it certainly was hilarious. What I wasn't expecting was that it was also going to be deadly serious at times and gloriously heart-warming at others. I was also surprised to find that it is almost a musical. Well, that's not strictly true, but songs do play a large part in not only locating the era, but also work as a very clever device to reveal each of the characters hidden dreams, suppressed pain, or remembered joys.

We are welcomed into the play by the narrator, Nick, an ex-teacher and would-be playwright, as he explains how, at one stage in his life, when getting over a total breakdown that nearly destroyed him, he moved into a halfway house on Liberal Street, in a working-class Sydney suburb. Not only is the street called Liberal, but he moved in on federal Election Day 1996, the day John Howard swept into power. At an election night party, Nick meets April, an ex-'soapie' star, who is struggling to get her next opportunity and unsure whether she really does have any acting talent.

The spine of the play is the developing relationship of these two individuals, as they try to overcome their hesitancies and doubts. They also need to come to terms with the other occupants of Liberal Street, a collection of oddballs born in the 1930s and whose glory years would have been during the prime ministership of 'Pig Iron' Bob Menzies. While not really political, they expect John Howard, to bring back their good times, a task gradually revealed to be fundamentally impossible. This is finally brought home to them in an hilarious scene where the outraged men find that their guns are going to be taken away.

All of these characters, however, as outrageously off the wall they at first appear to be, are far more than just comic relief cartoon cut-outs. They are well-rounded, real people who are dynamically brought to life by a dedicated group of very talented actors all at the top of their game.

Lindsay Dunn, as the irascible Jack, is often quite shocking as he parades his sexist attitudes and contempt for his wife, Janette, played by Joanne St Clair. She, in turn, gives back as good as she gets, on a nightly basis. The quality of the playwright is demonstrated when he gives these, often unpleasant characters, moments of such pathos which these two actors are skilful enough to grab with both hands and provide us with passages of intense beauty. The glory of Dunn's singing voice, in particular, was as shocking as his oft-repeated "it shits me to death". St Clair takes the audience on a journey where we flip between deep sympathy for her and her 'lot in life', and horror at the vicious contempt she has for Jack.

The other couple, Rosie and Claude, played by Deborah Walsh and Jack Robins, are at the other end of the spectrum from Jack and Janette, as a seemingly perfectly happy, loving couple for whom "the future is looking Rosy". Walsh and Robins skillfully give beautifully nuanced performances, enabling us to wonder just how perfect it all is. Is Rosie really content in her lifelong dependency on Claudie, who actually seems more than a little married to his Chrysler Valiant? As Claudie, Robins revels in a mix of well-crafted indifference and bemused pain, the skeletons lurking in his closet being the number of people whom he claims have wilfully got in front of his truck while he's been driving it. Their contentment seems fuelled by alcohol and laughter, and Walsh shows the depth of her craft in performing some of the hardest things for an actor to show, laughter and drunkenness. She nailed it.

And then there is the German, Kurt, played as impressively as always by Brian Godfrey. Kurt assures us, and the other characters in the play, that he is a bad man. He then goes on to show us this, with an extended verbal attack on April, just when we know that she is pretty much at her lowest ebb. Godfrey has carved a bit of a niche for himself playing bad men as he does it so well. I have a fond memory from twenty-five odd years ago of witnessing him producing a coup de theatre at the old Group Theatre by erupting from a pile of scrunched-up newspapers as the serial killer John Reginald Christie. He produces almost the same chilling and creepy effect in this play by appearing in tophat and tails and singing the old Maurice Chevalier number, Thank Heavens for Little Girls.

Pride of place must go to Nick Launchbury, as Nick, and Leah Lowe, as April. Playing insecurity is a tough gig, because it can so easily look like 'real' insecurity or plain bad acting. The growing relationship and their combined mix of insecurities and strengths (contrasted with the other characters in the street) take the audience on a journey, and grounds the story in truth. Lowe demonstrates real conviction and talent in those early moments of the play when she tries to decide whether to go to America and live a safe life, or to keep struggling to achieve her acting dreams. The beauty of her voice as she sang the opening number as a late 19th-century music hall artiste was another definite plus and, later, she portrayed her true grit and finely crafted cold anger when she stands up to Jack. Nick's role, swapping in and out of character one minute and narrator the next, could easily have been unconvincing, but Launchbury carried it off with an effortless physicality and naturalness. When, towards the end of the play, he finely bursts into a physical jumble of body, songlines, and spoken words that underpin his fears, his confusion, and his hopes, it is a delight to watch. As linchpins of the play, these two actors performed their difficult tasks most adroitly, and were never less than engrossing.

Mention, of course, must be made of the director, Lesley Reed, and her assistant, Olivia Jane Parker, who so successfully steered this quality cast through what could have proved to have been a difficult journey, but looked to have been most enjoyable for all concerned. With so many songs, the work of Sarah Bradley, as musical director, was crucial as, also, was that of Geoffrey Bennett on the piano. The set deserves a special mention. Four houses, and one interior room, all constantly available for the action, is a challenge in itself. The black and white, almost chalkboard style detailing, was a masterstroke, and entirely enhanced the production, as did the lighting design, subtly underlining a plethora of different moods.

All in all, a surprising, funny, poignant, and truly great production.

Photography, Les Zetlein.


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