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BWW Review: CLOUDSTREET Is A Major Australian Success Story

Reviewed Thursday 12th May 2016

The State Opera Company of South Australia is known for taking every opportunity to present new works and that is what is happening with Cloudstreet, an opera based on the iconic book by Tim Winton. The company has pulled out all the stops for this opera, which has been five years in the making, and has been through several workshops along the way, constantly refining it.

An impressive team has come together to stage this production with composer, George Palmer, CEO and artistic director of the company and conductor, Timothy Sexton, director Gale Edwards, set designer, Victoria Lamb, costume designer, Ailsa Paterson, lighting designer Nigel Levings, and video designer, Craig Williams. The cast is equally as impressive as the creative team, and so is the orchestra.

This is very much an Australian opera, set in Western Australia, and with indigenous spirituality taking a prominent place in the story. Two dysfunctional rural working class families, the Lambs and the Pickles, both suffer adversity. Sam Pickles inherits a large old house at number one Cloud Street in a suburb of Perth, but cannot sell it for twenty years under the terms of the will and, being out of work and short of money, he decides to rent out half of it, the Lambs becoming the tenants. We follow the two families and their ups and downs over the period from 1943 to 1963.

For the Lambs, Lester and Oriel, and their six children, it was the brain damage suffered by Samson 'Fish' Lamb when he almost drowned when caught up in their fishing net and the sale of their home that made them decide to move to the city. He was the shining star of the family, very smart and loved by everybody, and now he is like a little child. His brother, Mason 'Quick' Lamb, who was always in his shadow, now becomes his carer and closest companion, until it all gets too much and he leaves. He ends up hunting kangaroos but is badly injured by a wounded animal and is returned home by the mysterious, Bob Crab.

Sam Pickles lost the fingers of his right hand in an accident at work, ending his life on the fishing boat. He inherits the run down house, and also gets a job at the mint, but that good fortune is threatened as he is an inveterate gambler, and his wife, Dolly, drinks heavily and spends her time promiscuously with other men. In rejecting her role as a mother she has earned the hatred of their daughter, Rose, who berates her father for allowing Dolly to carry on the way that she does.

Initially, both families express a hatred for the house, and have an uneasy feeling about it which, known only to Fish who can see and hear them, is due to the presence of the spirits of Aboriginal girls who were forced to become housemaids and were ill-treated there, and Bob Crab, a 'magic man' who has been trying to free their spirits, which requires love and new life in the house. Because he was almost drowned, Fish has an affinity with water and now lives his life more in that spirit world, where he appears to have his full faculties, than in this one.

There is no overture. It begins immediately with the Lambs having a picnic by the river as Lester, Fish, and Quick go netting for prawns, their fun ending dramatically as Fish becomes entangled in the net and is trapped underwater. A projected video on the set, actually filmed underwater by Craig Williams as one part of his amazing sequence of images and videos, echoes in vivid detail the scene on stage. George Palmer's music for this opening sequence wonderfully reflects the light-heartedness of the family at play, the drowning, and the desperation of Oriel as she tries to revive Fish, and everybody's relief as he eventually breathes again. All this in the first few minutes of an opera that will run for three hours, including the interval, and cover a twenty year period from near the end of WWII, through the Bob Menzies Prime Ministership of Australia, and the Korean war.

Victoria Lamb's set design has a background of the walls of a neglected timber-frame building of massive proportions, originally lath and plaster but with the plaster long since crumbled away revealing the vertical and horizontal timbers that held it. Being a pale colour it serves not only as an image of the house on Cloud Street but also as a huge screen for the projections, and a vast canvas on which Nigel Levings can work his magic with his intricate lighting design. Almost the entire stage is a huge revolve, permitting furniture to be set at the rear while the action is at the front, turning to change scenes in an instant. Ailsa Paterson's costuming completes the visual aspect of the work, changing styles as the years roll by to suit the times of the action.

Central to everything in the opera is Fish Lamb, given a stunning portrayal by Nicholas Jones as the man straddling two worlds, half in each and not yet fitting into either. In this world he is brain damaged and childlike and in the other his consciousness has his full original faculties, demanding that Jones effectively play two characters, one in the recitative and the other in his arias. His rapid changes between the two versions of Fish are consistent and instant, and he brings out that spiritual aspect that grows within him with a beautiful progression.

Quick Lamb is played by Nicholas Cannon, in his finest role to date, embracing the widest range of emotions in this complex performance. Quick initially blames himself for what has happened to Fish and suffers depression for most of the book thinking that it should have been him. Cannon will bring you to verge of tears and, possibly, a bit further, and then bring you a warm glow, as he takes you on his journey with Fish. Quick's many and varied feelings are all there in his voice as Cannon sings.

Desiree Frahn plays Rose Pickles, from a pigtailed and bespectacled unhappy young girl, through anorexia, and to being the expectant wife of Quick, happily taking on the care of Fish with her new husband. It is their return to Cloudstreet, prompted by Bob Crab, that frees the spirits, and taking Fish back to the family allows him to slip away during another family picnic and walk out into the water while nobody is watching. Frahn, too, has excelled herself in this mighty production that seems to bring out the best in all of the performers.

The story is told largely through these three characters. What we learn of Sam and Dolly is largely how Rose sees them, her two brothers resigned to the background. Lester and Oriel are seen through Fish and Quick, with the other brother and three sisters getting little individual attention.

Pelham Andrews plays Lester, presenting us with an upright member of the community, a hard worker, and head of a strongly Christian family. Andrews paints Lester as a simple, straightforward man, a breadwinner, husband, and father, as he believes those traditional male roles should be carried out. Andrews brings out the caring, generous aspects of Lester, along with his confusion and inability to understand Oriel's actions, in a wonderful performance that generates our sympathy for him.

Antoinette Halloran is Oriel, and we feel Oriel's pain at the loss of her favourite child, not simply because of his brain damage, but because he no longer seems to even acknowledge her existence. Halloran conveys Oriel's disillusionment and the loss of faith that leads her to the extraordinary choice to move out of the house and live in a tent in the back garden, for years, constantly reading her bible. Halloran's deeply profound approach to her characterisation makes that action believable.

Sam is played by Barry Ryan, whose religion is a great faith in Lady Luck or, as he says, "the shifty shadow". He and his family are the opposite of the respectable Lambs and Ryan portrays a manic depressive, on a high when his betting produces a profit, and in deep despair at the carrying on of Dolly. Ryan's is a marvellous character study and, like Winton's other richly drawn characters, there is plenty for him to work with. You could meet him in any local pub, even today, so realistic is his interpretation of Sam.

Dolly is portrayed by Joanna McWaters, in a performance that will no doubt feature high on her personal list of greatest accomplishments. She creates a vivid picture of a woman drifting aimlessly through a lifeless life, clutching at physical encounters as a replacement for love, whilst rejecting the undying love of her husband. Her drinking and flamboyant lifestyle hide a sadness, even anger, that McWaters lets it out in small bursts, ending with a powerfully emotional confession that reconciles Dolly with Sam and Rose.

Don Bemrose, Australia's only trained indigenous baritone, is phenomenal in the role of Bob Crab, bringing a feeling of great power and spirituality to the role, and his voice conjuring up thoughts of the nations that held this land for so long that they have become part of it and inseparable from it. The history of his people can be seen in his eyes.

Kristen Hardy, Karina Jay, Courtney Turner, and Ben Francis are the other Lamb siblings, with Hew Wagner and Beau Sandford as the other Pickles, and Jeremy Kleeman is Toby, who romances Rose and then embarrasses her in a drunken outburst. There are yet more quality performances from all of these artists, enhancing the authenticity of the production.

The Spirit Girls, Lilla Berry, Natasha Wanganeen, and Kirsty Williams are primarily seen in Craig Williams's projected images, which were also filmed underwater, and they create that essential unsettling atmosphere and other worldly presence superbly. Their importance, and that of Bob Crab, cannot be overstressed as they are the essential links between the two worlds, and such a vital part of the story.

In the orchestra pit, as usual, is the magnificent Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, offering a faultless performance of George Palmer's score. Like State Opera, this orchestra is a major asset to the Arts scene in Adelaide, not merely for the excellence of their performances, but for their ability to tackle any genre that is asked of them, from accompanying jazz or rock musicians, through to Wagner's Ring Cycle. Sexton deserves the heartiest congratulations for his work as musical director in evincing such riveting performances from orchestra and singers alike.

It is obvious that the director, Gale Edwards, has worked hard on ensuring that the performers are all exceptional actors, as well as singers of great abilities. This, like much of the work of Sondheim, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and similar productions, is in that modern cross-genre with aspects of serious musical theatre, which demands performers who are both operatic singers and skilled actors. In this cast Edwards has found a largely South Australian cast, with only four people from interstate, who can fulfil that demanding requirement. Look at their facial expressions, their eyes, and their body language and there is always so much happening, even with those standing and observing the main acction.

Add this to the very expressive singing by all of the cast members and this is why the performance received a standing ovation and massive applause, with audience members later throwing around accolades like confetti. One of the most telling comments, heard time and again, and spoken with some surprise, was that it was exactly the same as the novel. How often are we disappointed by attending a film, or watching a television programme, and finding the only resemblance to a favourite work of literature is the title? Not so here, with a close adherence to the story, and the libretto, sung in the vernacular, the conversations having been taken directly from the book.

If you liked the highly respected, award winning novel, then this is the work that you will want to see. Tim Winton's story and characters are captivating. Technically, this is an amazing production, with so much effort going into all aspects and, from the performance perspective, the music is as approachable as Sondheim, Gershwin, or Bernstein, and the singers know exactly what to do with it to create an opera as captivating as the book.

This is a world premiere, of course, and we can only hope that it tours the country, and travels overseas. It is far too good to have just one run in Adelaide. Original Australian operas are few and far between, and this one is something very special. It is one that you really must not miss.

An interview with the director, Gale Edwards.

Rose's aria

The duet between Rose Pickles and Quick Lamb

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