Reviewed by: Waikato Times/Theatreview
Date: 28th February, 2011
Reviewer: Gail Pittaway
On a midsummer’s night in a garden what could be better than a show that opens with the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The fairies dance their final magic away to the strains of Mendelssohn’s orchestration and Puck somersaults into his final speech, “If we shadows have offended”. As he takes off his make-up we get to know Puck as Tom, an Australian school boy, deepening his friendship with Meg, one of his schoolmates. It’s “Schoolies” night in Australia, the last night of school for the year, and their families are preparing to go away for their summer holidays.
Michael Gow’s play , on the surface, is simply about getting away, in itself a theme ripe for comedy, as road movies and holiday sketches will attest. But this Shakespearean prologue and the later epilogue from King Lear signal greater levels of meaning to be revealed. When Shakespeare’s characters go away they suffer a sea change- a crisis of recognition or maturation and so it is here. Each of the three families we encounter is in crisis and through interactions with others and the natural world; each person comes away with greater strength and resolution.
First there’s Tom whose apparently cheery English immigrant parents Harry and Vic are trying to protect him from the reality of a life-threatening illness. Then there are Meg’s parents, the tetchy Gwen for whom nothing is ever going to be right and the long suffering Jim who tries and fails to protect her from this realisation. Finally there’s the school headmaster, Roy, who plans to takes Coral his wife away to a resort in Queensland, to help her recover from the death of their son. But Coral is already “away with the fairies” with grief, and Roy’s efforts only manage to frustrate him and alienate her further.
Written in the 1980’s, Away is set in the summer of 1967 and the New Year of 1968. For many families the time between Christmas and New Year is a no man’s land but it gives added poignancy to know that Coral and Roy’s son has died as an Australian conscript in the Viet Nam War. The timing also adds deeper risk to intimate encounters between Meg and Tom, attempting an honest approach to teenage sexuality when such talk was discouraged. Even more risky is the holiday friendship that springs up between the married Coral and Rick, a fitter and turner on his honeymoon. For her he is the living embodiment of her son’s generation, and most simply alive; for him she is a truthful woman, without clichés and conventional platitudes, one who excites him in a way his new (always offstage) wife can’t. Marooned in that time, before the permissive generation, and in that place- middle, white Australia- they can’t break away from who they are expected to be.
Gaye Poole’s choice of play for this Carving in Ice performance is perfect for the garden setting in the Hamilton Gardens Festival of the Arts and the production makes great use of the various entrances and exits for the Camellia Lawn as well as the encircling bushes and plantings, stairs and benches to cover
interior and exterior scenes alike. It’s perfect, too for a local New Zealand production – one that we can identify with as summer ends here.
Ari Nuttal-Parton makes a beguiling Tom, with more than a hint of Puck retained; while Kate Davison’s Meg is a good foil for him – sensitive yet sensible. Both their sets of parents make for strong theatrical partnerships- Vic and Harry, played by Mike Murphy-Scanlon and Mandy Faulkner, so endearingly chipper, while Genevieve Batchelor’s Gwen is wonderfully abrasive. Nick Clothier plays Jim with warmth and simplicity- avoiding the trap of making him weak.
It’s through the agency of that great device, a tempest, (here conveyed through a helter-skelter dance of fairies, furniture and campers) that the change is brought about. Loss and devastation bring Jim, Gwen and Meg a resolution to their conflicts and a change of place as an unplanned turn down a dirt track takes them to the same beach and headland that Tom’s family are camping.
The chaos of the storm also brings new order and tranquillity to Tom’s family. Vic and Harry, at first so awkward and earnest, now take the lead in calming the others. Tom himself, described variously by family and fans as the new Laurence Olivier or Chips Rafferty, transforms sexual frustration into creative invention to make a play for the other holiday makers about the redeeming power of love.
Mike Bell’s portrayal of Roy is a man at the end of his patience. Adrienne Clothier is perfectly cast to play Coral, whose fragile looks (“just like Kim Novak”) and sweet voice distract from the strength of mother love and mother courage that lie beneath. The most “Shakespearean “ of all the characters, because even she knows she is lost, Gow endows Coral with the right to physically experience a sea change, when she partakes in the little holiday entertainment, or play within a play, with young Tom and portrays a mermaid transforming back into human form.
In the case of other Carving in Ice stalwarts, Brendan West gives a fine portrayal of Rick the newlywed, a good hearted bloke, not just a caricature, while Richard Homan has a small cameo as party MC at a holiday camp, and plays a mean ukulele. The music for the production is well selected- and the sixties numbers such as Pearly Shells are toe tapping to those of us who were there and can remember. There are some fun large cast dance moments as fairies in the school production, at the hotel New Year’s party, doing the locomotion in some fine bits of psychedelic costume and the very Shakespearean storm scene. In fact hair and costume are a delight, especially the prevalence of bright colours and backcombing.
While this is a funny summer play, it’s played here with an element of autumn. Perhaps because of the large circular space, giving air and distance between some scenes, perhaps because of pacing, there is a quietness about the production that adds to the poignancy of the lives we encounter. A few voices are lost at the periphery of the set- the furthest corners- especially with contesting noise in the outside setting. But overall the production reflects the passion and enthusiasm we have come to expect from one of Gaye Poole’s productions.
Gow’s play itself transforms from realism into magic and back again as must we when we leave the garden – although as an audience we don’t want to pull away.