Frank Barnes


By Michael Gow
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Sydney Theatre Company And Malthouse Theatre Melbourne

To have a play produced commercially is a major achievement for any playwright. For that play to still be around 30 years later, produced, seen, read and studied for all that time, is a rare and greater achievement and is what has happened with this great Australian classic since being first produced at The Stables Theatre in 1986.

I remember being in awe of this play but thought that would be it until the Sydney Theatre Company staged a much bigger production in 1987 at The Drama Theatre. The more extensive stage lifted what I thought was a very small play onto a large platform and it worked as well. Within that year there were no fewer than four other professional productions of Away. The play deals with many issues, including class, and the STC production emphasised this with a set backgrounder with three miniature houses representing the class differences of the three families in the play.

The play is on the syllabi for the Higher School Certificate or equivalent in four states, and it is not hard to understand why.

It opens with an end-of-year school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and gets off to a great start with the thank-you speech from the school principal, Roy (Glenn Hazeldine). Like many teachers I remember that speech, which is funny because it is so familiar and embarrassing: the principal knows little about what he is saying.

After the performance, students Tom (Liam Nunan) and Meg (Naomi Rukavina) farewell each other and discuss their holiday plans. Meg’s neurotic mother Gwen (Heather Mitchell) and father Jim (Marco Chiappi) arrive to take Meg home.

Gwen, who thinks all problems can be solved by taking a Bex (a cup of tea and having a good lie-down) and, probably, money, discloses their plan to holiday in a luxury caravan. There is a definite aversion to Tom as he is a class below, a fact established when his parents arrive to pick him up.

Unlike Gwen, who has little to say about the play and Meg’s performance — an attitude that her loving father, Jim, attempts to counter — Vic (Julia Davis) and Harry (Wadih Dona) are ebullient, encouraging and loving with their son, Tom. They also show concern about his health, an indication that something is wrong and which we later learn is because he has a terminal illness.

As they are all leaving, we find that they are going to vacation at the beach in a lean-to tent. Soon the principal and his seemingly distant wife, Coral (Natasha Herbert), arrive and join the vacation conversation. They are off to a Gold Coast resort. And so the scene is set for three Australian families setting off for three different but familiar holidays.

After a scene change that features lots of asses heads (as in Bottom from the Dream) we arrive at the Gold Coast where Coral embarks on an affair with a young man and we learn that she and Roy had a son who was killed in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Gwen, Jim and Meg are plunged into the politics of their fellow campers reacting to changes being mooted for their familiar camping area.

And then a storm changes all their lives forever.

The storm (The Tempest) causes all the families to meet up again on the beach where Meg and Tom present a holiday camp talent show and each family’s story plays out, ultimately reaching some resolution.

The entire story within this production is played out as seen through Tom’s eyes. Has he died? We don’t know.

The play finishes as it started, back at school, with a performance of King Lear.

It is the matter of Tom’s health that helps resolve characters so they can go on despite the troubles that have befallen them. Gwen calms down when Vic and Harry tell her how they deal with knowing their son will soon die while Tom himself explains his forthcoming death to Coral, which helps her deal with her loss.

The performances in this production are exemplary bar one that does not quite get there. The set is wonderful, with little changing from the woods in the opening until the change that comes with the storm landing us on the beach for the denouement. This is one of those magic stage moments (tour de force?) that makes you open your mouth in astonishment, it is so effective and extraordinary.

Designer Mark Ferguson has captured the play superbly, and while it is set in the post-Vietnam period it is timeless. The lighting by Paul Jackson, music and sound by
J. David Franzke and choreography by Stephanie Lake all contribute value to this truly classic play, which I suspect has another 30 years ahead of further reading and productions.

If The Hayes Theatre production of Cabaret returns to Sydney make sure to see it. Apart from having always been one of the best musicals it is now even more relevant than before, a reminder of how easy it was for the Nazi regime to rise. I also note that Calamity Jane has just opened at The Hayes to raves. This is not a great musical but great fun, which is also a legitimate reason to go to the theatre.

Soon we will have The Play That Goes Wrong, which is about an amateur production that does exactly that.

Frank Barnes is retired and excited by the prospect of seeing Mark Colvin’s Kidney at Belvoir and Chimerica at Sydney Theatre