BWW REVIEW: Family, Finality And Fear Come Together In What Is Normally A Festive Season In A Moving ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY
Saturday 30th March 2019, 7:30pm, New Theatre
Patrick Howard (Director) strips New Theatre back to its bare bones for Michael Gow's (playwright) ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY, a Brechtian Australian story of connection, compassion and coming to terms with terminal illness. Parents, politics, and finding peace in a life that is not going the way you planned is expressed with raw simplicity as artifice is removed to allow the audience to consider Gow's message as more than just a story.
Once in demand theatre director Will Drummond (Francisco Lopez) has found himself somewhat disenchanted by life whilst he waits to collect his 76-year-old mother Jeannie (Alice Livingstone) at Ballina Airport so they can spend a Christmas at a borrowed beach house, recalling the summers of his youth. Recalling his 'German Phase' where he favored Bertolt Brecht's theatrical style and Marxist philosophy Drummond, with the assistance of other characters, brings the audience up to speed on some significant and not-so-significant events that have bought him to this point. He shares his hopes that he and his mother can find some joy after the recent loss of his father Bill (Martin Portus) 6 weeks prior. Devastatingly he is set for more bad news as Jeannie arrives, stoically pushing through despite aches, pains, fatigue and serious weight loss and they are set to send Christmas at the hospital.
While other New theatre productions have adopted a Brechtian simplicity, production and lighting designer Victor Kalka takes the verfremdungseffekt style epic theatre to the extreme with nothing obscuring the small theatre's storage space and access to backstage areas. Cheap school hall style plastic seats and other props border the bare space along with an exposed stage manager's desk and costume rack. Kalka also ensures that the style extends to the costuming that implies that they have not changed since walking in off the street, only making minor changes necessary to help define a character. Ryan Devlin's sound design serves as a subtle reminder of the season with carols in the background but allowing live vocals when the song served more purpose for the story. The mystery of the theatre is broken down and the audience is allowed to see the machinations of scene changes and prop positioning. Gow has characters breaking the fourth wall to set the scene and share feelings along with the economical doubling of actors.
Howard has created a work that is deceptively simple but completely engaging. Focus is held on the core story whilst choreographed scene changes allow for more intrigue as pieces are passed and slid into place by the rest of the ensemble. Even though Howard keeps the cast on stage throughout they quickly become part of the furniture, never distracting from the central work as they also intently watch on. He has ensured there is delineation between the honesty and realism in the played-out memories and the 'script notes' set ups that provide background into the story and insight into the theatre making process.
Francisco Lopez ensures that Will Drummond is a likable character that is seen as real, relatable and human, with the self-awareness along with confidence one would expect from a young man who has had to overcome a number of challenges to become successful in his career and open about his sexuality. He conveys the passion for his beliefs what also exhibiting the unease at trying to cope with his mother's frailty, wanting the best for her including knowing how he feels but hesitant to give it voice feeling that it is accepting the inevitable.
Will's mother Jeannie spends a large portion of the story in a near coma, but Alice Livingstone makes sure that the audience has already connected with the protective mother in the scenes from Will's memory. Her monologue of loosing Will at the beach when he was six captures the mother's panic and her protective defense of husband Bill (Martin Portus) is powerful in the disgust at big business and the demeaning medical process that has him treated like a child. As always, Livingstone gives her characters a truth, honesty and realism where you forget that she's playing a part that someone else has written.
Other performances of note are Amy Victoria Brooks' Gail and Martin Portus' Wally. As the two strangers who visit Jeannie in hospital both Brooks and Portus create intriguing characters. Doubling as both an actor playing Lady Bracknell in Will's rehearsal of The Importance of Being Earnest and the 30something Gail, these performances are possibly the best this reviewer has seen from Brooks. As a character within a character she captures Lady Bracknell's gravitas and the actor's indignation that she has to work with an actor that will jeopardize the success of the production, but Will has given a final lifeline out of misguided compassion. As Gail, Brooks shifts gear to give a quieter expression that creates mystery as to why she's sitting with Jeannie and how she knows so much about Will. Portus, also doubles, taking on Will's stroke addled father Bill and the roving preacher who somehow has free reign to talk to patients in the hospital. Portus conveys the persistence of a bible thumper undeterred by Will repeatedly trying to get him to leave but he ensures that the character is not overplayed but rather giving clues to the personal connection and concern he feels for Will's mother, making it understandable that Will remains polite even though Wally refuses to leave till he's prayed with Jeannie.
A layered work that shifts between the serious and superficial throughout, giving comic relief between the weightier topics, ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY is a gently Australian story of growing old, finding connection, death, love, philosophy, diversity and religion. Well worth catching.
Photos: Bob Seary