It wasn’t a full house, far from it, but QTC’s latest main stage production Brisbane—a commissioned work by local playwright Matthew Ryan—still opened to a warm reception on Saturday night. The play is set as the title suggests in Brisbane. It’s 1942: the year thousands of American troops arrived as part of the war effort in the Pacific, turning Queensland’s capital into virtual garrison town. Now remembered as Brisbane’s ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ moment, it was a defining period in the city’s history. General MacArthur set up his headquarters at the AMP building on the corner of Edward and Queen Street and there’s now a museum dedicated to him on the top floor. Lennons—then situated opposite the old Court House on George Street—had only just been re-built and kitted out with the latest mod-cons the year before, and was the who’s who hub of brass and broads. Other era-defining venues were City Hall and the Trocadero (on the ‘other side’ of the river) where swing bands played, and jitterbugs jittered. The Carver Club, a recreational facility for African-American soldiers established in 1943, stood where QPAC is now.
It’s against this background that Ryan has set his coming-of-age story about 14-year-old Danny Fisher, played with appropriate, if sometimes grating, youthful earnest by the diminutive Dash Kruck. Danny’s brother, Frank (Conrad Colby), a Kitty Hawk pilot, is shot down by the Japanese during the bombing of Darwin in February of 1942.
I’ll start with the The Set: Basically, it’s a mega-sized verandah meant to characterise what’s known in real estate terms as an ‘Old Queenslander’, and the staging makes as much use of the space ‘below’ as the space ‘above’. The underneath is packed with ‘vintage’ props—some real and others not—of the kinds of things people store below their verandahs: tools, old car engines, bicycles, boxes, broken household furniture, etc. There’s even an old dressmaker’s dummy. It then converts seamlessly into a mechanic’s workshop for Danny’s scenes with Andy West: ‘the Yank’ (also played with convincing ‘Yankiness’ by Conrad Colby in a blurring of big brother hero worship transposed onto Andy the Yank). At other times it’s just ‘there’, in the background while Danny’s in the schoolyard playing cricket and fending off bullies. The upstairs represents the mostly ‘adult’ world, where interactions with Danny’s parents and Rose (Frank’s fiancé — played by the period picture-perfect and endearing Lucy Goleby) take place, and where bad news is delivered. It’s intended to be sparse and daunting. Then there’s the pulley for the ‘wire work’ (as QTC Artistic Director Wesley Enoch describes it in the play briefing), meant to simulate flying and, in one scene, ‘swing dancing’. All of this takes place in the above section.
Theatrically, it’s all very well thought out and is an ‘innovative’ use of space, for the audience however—at least those in first few rows—it’s neck-crickingly awful. To watch the action happening ‘above’ requires those in the front row (where we were) to crane their necks back at 45-degree angle to see what the actors are doing. For the second act, my partner and I moved to a couple of (the many) empty seats in the middle section; it made for a much more pleasant viewing experience. In the interests of audience comfort, the first couple of rows really should have been cordoned off. Although, set designer (Stephen Curtis) and lighting designer (David Walters) were attempting to imbue the production with an ‘epic’ feel, I don’t think the Optus Playhouse was the best choice of theatre for this play. The Cremorne would have been better: a smaller theatre space that still would have allowed for the levelled concept of the verandah and the interplay of ‘above’ and ‘below’, but would have also better affected the feel of a small suburban Queenslander, and not seen front-row patrons making appointments with their chiropractors the next day. The Cremorne is also an easier space to fill and judging by the size of the opening night crowd—perhaps of an indication of anticipated audience numbers—this also wouldn’t have been a bad thing.
‘In the Mood’ isn’t trotted out, but the mood of the period, its music, and its well-worn tropes, are depicted and distilled through stylised movement sequences and other heightened theatrical devices, including an exaggerated—aided by a pulley attached to Veronic Neave—slow-motion jitterbug sequence. There’re even a couple of cameo appearances by MacArthur, amusingly caricatured with his oversized pipe, by Matthew Backer. The impact of the Yank invasion is likewise presented via a sort of theatrical montage of random facts presented with an overtly negative bias. The ‘goodtime gal’ and her predatory ways with GIs, the brawls between Yanks and disgruntled diggers are all given the same dream-like treatment, meant to represent Danny’s imagination. But these conflicts are background trinkets used to generate colour and atmosphere. There are even kitschy passages from the 1942 Pocket Guidebook for American Serviceman in the mix (a device I’m also guilty of using in my own work on the subject). These theatrical devices, however, contribute little to the central dramatic conflict, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for me it made those elements of the play tokenistic and one-note by literally trotting out tried and true national stereotypes about the era that people want to see reinforced.
The always-dependable Hayden Spencer and Veronica Neave play Danny’s parents. As actors, these two rarely put a foot a wrong, even if Spencer substitutes theatricality for genuine emotion at times. Though obviously a directorial decision, moments of heightened emotion, such as the news of Frank’s death, are delivered as stylised movement sequences. This device played well to Spencer’s unique abilities as a ‘physical’ actor, but it also seem a tad contrived for the sake of ‘epic-ness’. It felt as though the director, Ian Sinclair, was attempting to make the substance of these moments bigger and grander than they are—‘epic’—when in fact their impact lies in how uniquely tragic and personal they are. One family’s tragedy was transfigured to represent all families who lost a son to the war. Danny’s parents, in this regard, are sketched more as caricatures, stand-ins, than fully fleshed out characters in their own right, which is an observation of the writing, rather than acting. The supporting cast, Hugh Parker in particular (as General Monash and a schoolyard bully), all brought colour, pathos, and nicely played comedic moments to the play.
But the story is Danny’s: his ambition to be a writer (one day), his battle with schoolyard bullies, his unrequited crush on his dead brother’s fiancé Rose, his friendship with Patty (a limp-legged, 14-year-old girl, and the play’s primary comic relief played by Harriet Dyer*) and, of course, his desire to fly a Kitty Hawk, just like Frank. And while these events are presented with humour and charm they’re only just sufficiently engaging for an adult audience, or at least, this adult. Privileging the viewpoint of an adolescent boy is certainly nothing new—particularly in World War II home-front fiction, for example, there is David Malouf’s Johnno and Randolph Stowe’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea—but it does curtail the potential for more complex, layered and thematically richer dramatic conflict. I came away wondering whom this play was meant for: QTC subscribers? Surely, they’d want something more sophisticated? For many of them, this was their parents’ generation. Casual theatregoers? People who go to see the ‘safe shows’—Shakespeare, Chekov, Coward and Williams?. The ‘edgy’ youth audience doing theatre majors at university? Or school audiences? The last of these seems most likely. You’ve got a protagonist they can relate to as per the brief of the classic bildungsroman and a bonus history lesson. I have no idea if many school audiences are lined up to the see the production, but without them this production feels like its destined to bomb, excuse the pun. Not because it’s not well written, directed, designed and capably acted—it is all of those things—but despite its best intentions to be ‘epic’ it simply does not transcend its naïve, 14-year-old viewpoint, and the end result is underwhelming because of that.
Ryan takes some liberties with historical details, although whether intentional or not, I couldn’t say. Cloudland, for example, was commandeered by the US Armed Forces for troop accommodation and was not in use as a dancehall during the war, as one stylised dance sequence would have us believe. As a stickler for historical authenticity, this detail annoyed me until Ryan’s thematic intentions became more apparent—planes, flying, sky, clouds—and I figured some artistic licence could, perhaps, be granted. Another inaccuracy was the mention of a tickertape parade when the Americans arrived in 1942 to ‘save us from the Japs’. There was a tickertape parade for the Americans, but it happened in March 1941, before Pearl Harbour and before the Americans entered the war. I’m fairly sure no one else knew, and probably couldn’t care less about such seemingly minor details, but they annoyed me, because art—books, theatre, film, paintings—are the way most of us access history and once an historical inaccuracy is represented in art it doesn’t take long for it to become fact. Just ask Richard the III. I believe novelists and playwrights have a responsibility to get history as right as they can (Shakespeare, I will to concede, can probably be excused).
In fairness to Ryan though, there is much to like about his writing and vision—his dialogue and his characterisation, where it really counts, is done well—but in terms of recreating this particular era of Brisbane’s history, it could be argued that he, and Sinclair, were trying to do too much, and that’s why there’s some fallback to stereotypes and generalisation. If they hadn’t overreached with the supposed ‘epic-ness’ of this play, it would have been a better production.
* My impression of Dyer’s performance was slightly coloured by her diva turn when my partner photographed the cast for The Australian. Let’s just say he got a bit of ’tude from her.