Review: Poor Boy ~ theatre notes

Friday, January 30, 2009

Review: Poor Boy

It was the end of the first punishing day of this century-busting Melbourne heatwave, and Ms TN dragged out the gladrags and made her way into the city, leaving a little puddle of sweat behind her on the train. Boy, is it hard to maintain opening night elegance in this weather (and I won't even mention the Lindt chocolate that was lurking, forgotten but not gone, in my handbag...I just didn't know chocolate could get that liquid).

The destiny that lay before me, as inevitable as Luke Skywalker's brush with Dad, was the Melbourne Theatre Company's glamorous Sumner Theatre. We've been watching the MTC's new home grow for years now, and many have been the lively arguments about its eye-catching exterior (which I rather like, but others rather don't). And Wednesday night was its premiere outing.

I confess that the most attractive part, at least to begin with, was the blissfully cool air-conditioning, and the efficient and pleasant bar. Then there was the adventure of the toilets, which should be religiously visited by all patrons. Downstairs the men's toilets are blue and the women's are pink. So pink, so girly, so marbly and swirly that Ms TN nearly became delirious. I've never been much good at girly, and this was beyond the fairyfloss of giddy Barbara Cartland nightmares. The upstairs toilets, on the other hand, are a kind of gondola fantasia, with Venetian designs based on JC Williamson sets and mirrors that you have to be careful not to walk into.

After all this excitement, they finally let us into the theatre to see the main event. And let me be upfront: I looove this space. The scraps of quotes from famous plays that wrap the auditorium might be a bit kitsch, sure, but what a place to watch theatre! The seats are huge, big enough to sit cross-legged on if the fancy takes you, and covered with non-stick suede-ish upholstery (a fine idea on sweaty evenings). But what's most beautiful is the shape of the auditorium: the seats sweep upward steeply in one architectural gesture from the foot of the stage, giving the audience a singular unity, the democratic intimacy that is the first secret of good theatre.

And the stage. The stage has everything that opens and shuts. With Poor Boy, a "play with songs" by Matt Cameron and Tim Finn, director Simon Phillips was always going to use every inch of it. And this production certainly opens with some seductive theatrical conceits.

As the audience enters the auditorium, we encounter a poetically imagined Australian backyard – tufted grass, cumulus sky, a string of washing, a not-quite-solid house that is structured rather like the bridge of a ship. More than anything else, Iain Aitken's set summons nostalgia. As with Arthur Miller’s imagined stages, we know before a word is spoken that boundaries between the present and the past are troubled and unstable.

Front stage a child’s swing hangs down from the flies. Next to it is a red tricycle. The auditorium lights go down, the sound comes up – the amplified soughing of waves – and the tricycle begins to peddle around by itself in a circle, as if it is ridden by a ghost. Danny (Guy Pearce) pushes the washing line aside, as if it is a curtain, and launches into the play’s title song. He becomes an animating spirit, sweeping dust sheets aside that reveal different cast members and summoning the musicians, who rise out the floor with the music. By the song’s end, the play has been magicked into existence. This sequence shows director Simon Phillips at his best: he has a gift for graceful mise-en-scène, here tempered to Matt Cameron’s gently absurdist imagination.

Poor Boy itself, which features songs taken from various Tim Finn albums since the early 1980s, is a peculiar beast, and despite the odd moment of lyrical splendour or passionate performance, it doesn’t escape some fundamental conceptual problems.

The story, a kind of supernatural melodrama, concerns Jeremy Glass (played on different nights by three young actors), a seven-year-old boy who, after he is nearly hit by a car on a zebra crossing, suddenly claims that he belongs to another family. His parents Viv (Linda Cropper) and Sol (Greg Stone) are deeply worried, but then he walks across town and plants himself in the heart of another family, claiming to be their dead adult son Danny. He demonstrates such intimate knowledge of their secrets that the two families are forced to accept that the unbelievable is true.

This opens up a lot of deeply-buried conflict in both families, much of it driven by bitter sibling rivalries. Jem is the resented younger brother of the disaffected teen Sadie (Sara Gleeson), and Danny the older brother whom Miles (Matt Dyktynski) can never match. Ruth (Sarah Pierse), Danny's mother, is the stifling matriarch who infantalises her sons and cannot let them go, even in death; Viv, Jem's mother, is aging unhappily in her unhappy marriage, smouldering with resentment against her feckless husband.

Oddly, given the Chagall-like charm of the best of Matt Cameron's writing, the playwright irresistibly summoned throughout this text is Arthur Miller. The suburban family as a site of tragedy, the play's lyric realism, in particular the poetic ambitions of some of the monologues, all have the flavour of Miller. And there are specific allusions, such as the insubstantial walls of the family homes, which recalls the ghostly house in Death of a Salesman, or the tree that Ruth plants when her son dies, which echoes the memorial tree planted (and uprooted) in All My Sons.

But while he can certainly write a line, Cameron cannot match Miller's superb dramatic craft. The narrative of Poor Boy founders in its own complications, declining from the boldly impossible (which sparks the imagination) to the merely improbable (which becomes either tedious, embarrassing or laughable). Cameron's major problem has always been a tendency to tip from absurdity into whimsy, and here is no exception; only in Poor Boy the whimsy has become a little earnest. It gives a forced air to the emotional intensities that are so clearly aimed for, but which, as in Browning's Andrea Del Sarto, remain just beyond reach.

And then there is the problem of the songs, which are shoe-horned into the text even though they sometimes bear only the most tangential connection to the events on stage. They are mostly sung well and imaginatively arranged, although the band, riding its hydraulic stage up and down the haunted house, lacks a certain brio. It's hard to know why, dramatically speaking, the songs are there, except to provide a pleasant noise and emotional flavour. They all seemed terribly nice ditties, but in fact compositions like I Hope I Never or In A Minor Key are better than nice. There is a nagging air of ABC-TV variety special about it all.

Using extant popular songs to punctuate a show is, of course, as old as The Beggar’s Opera. Poor Boy demonstrates that a pop song, however finely crafted, is not necessarily theatrical. As the familiar songs rolled out, the sometimes desperately illustrative staging began to remind me irresistibly of a music video, in the same way that the play itself was reminiscent of a tv soap. Neither of these things is, in itself, a bad thing; without the bracing invigoration of such cultural slang, theatre dies a slow and sticky death. And the show could have done, certainly, with some of a soap opera’s economy and dramatic drive. But all the rough bits of these popular influences had been smoothed out or sawn off, making the whole rather anodyne.

It's well served by its cast, which, as has been usual recently at the MTC, is top notch: but again they seldom manage to find glints of hard emotional reality in between the plot. The notable exception is Stone, who excavates some fine moments of comic relief. The double staging of Danny/Jem, with lines shifting between Guy Pearce and the young actor, is beautifully effective, and Pearce has a fine voice and a touching (if sometimes rather earnest) presence. And Sara Gleeson, who was marvellous as the daughter in the recent Moliere and here reprises the cliched bratty teen with a refreshing candour, is clearly a talent to keep on eye on.

In all, I would have liked to have liked it more, since there are so many likeable elements; but Poor Boy never gels into a whole breathing creature. It's a slight story that can’t sustain its two and a half hours, and it doesn’t avoid moments of cheese or sheer silliness. As a play, it doesn't make a lot of sense; as a work of music theatre, it is conceptually muddy. But as a piece of design, it's a triumph; and perhaps, given the nature of the evening, it isn't surprising that the real star of the show was the stage itself.

A shorter version of this review is published in today's Australian.

Picture: The cast of Poor Boy. Photo: Jeff Busby

Poor Boy by Matt Cameron and Tim Finn, directed by Simon Phillips, musical direction Ian McDonald. Set design by Iain Aitken, costumes by Adrienne Chisholm, lighting design by Nick Schlieper. With Linda Cropper, Matt Dyktynski, Sara Gleeson, Guy Pearce, Sarah Pierse, Greg Stone, Abi Tucker and Gulliver McGrath/Jack McKinnis-Pegg/Hunter Stanford. Band: Ian McDonald, Michael Barker, Stephen Hadley, Stephen Ely and Gerry Hale. Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, MTC, until March 8. Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, July 9 to August 1. Bookings: 1300 723 038.


Anonymous said...

Ms TN, you've been much too kind to this little musical fluff-ball. The music would do nicely as elevator music and is totally devoid of any dramatic potential. The choice of composer is driven by celebrity names. None of the creatives seem to have asked themselves if the type of music Timm Finn writes - feel-good melody-pops ideally suited to life as a stocking-filler at Christmas or the $3.99 box at the supermarket checkout - has any dramatic potential at all. This music is simply anti-theatrical.

The text is too clunky as it stumbles from cliche to cliche. Matt Cameron should stop trying so hard. The characters are flat, stereotypical, predictable and are hardly allowed to interact with each other in any remotely theatrical way.

In an interview in the Age, Cameron says ""My worst case scenario was having a moment where somebody gets really angry and starts singing I See Red. I thought if we do that, then I should be taken out and shot in public." Annie, get your gun!

This is MTC's opening show in their first ever dedicated home and one that will hopefully serve them for the next 50 years or more. And the best they could come up with to celebrate this great moment is this absolute theatrical fizzer. Now that's depressing!

Alison Croggon said...

Was I really that kind, Borneo? I agree with everything you say. I even wrote criticisms that are very close to what you say here. Have another read...

But no, I didn't hate it, and I thought there were aspects of the production that were far from mediocre. Tragically, they didn't include the play and the music.

Though I think Finn's songs are rather better than you say, even if most of the time they didn't sound like it in Poor Boy. I was actually surprised that they weren't new songs. I mean, Nick Cave wrote new songs for the Woyzceck version at the Malthouse... and I am quite excited about seeing that...

But you make an important point in your last par. It's a shame this theatre didn't open with something magnificent.

Anonymous said...

I'm totally with you on Woyzeck. Really loooking forward to that. And I agree that we are basically singing from the same song sheet on Poor Boy. I felt that at moments it had the potential to get some grit and edge into it, and right then the band started up with a Kenny and Dolly-style duet as if someone had just turned on the worst easy-listening radio station. Finn is obviously a successful writer of popular, toe-tappin' sing-along-in-the-shower hits, and that's no mean achievement, but what has that got to do with theatre (at least what theatre can be). Woyzeck can't open early enough for me!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this was one of those "it sounded good in the programming meeting" shows that never lived up to its pedigree. I notice it is also part of the STC's season, and that Andrew Upton and Matt Cameron worked together last year on "Ruby Moon," so could that have been the genesis? I was there opening night as well, and will never trust a standing ovation again.

Alison Croggon said...

I expect there's something in that, Helena. Though the rocky transition from theory to practice is always the risk of new work.

As for ovations - I only stand up if my legs do it by themselves. That doesn't happen very often. So I was very much sitting down. It's a good rule of thumb anyway not to trust ovations on opening nights.

Craig D. Ising Esq said...

As usual my feeble attempts to verbalise my own review are rendered lame in comparison to your effort.

Agree almost word for word with your take on Poor Boy.

And I wanted to like it more. I really tried to enjoy it more.

Especially since my girlfriend had arranged this Valentine's Day event weeks ago, thus denying me the pleasure of witnessing Melbourne Victory's 4-0 thumping of Adelaide United on the same night.


Anonymous said...

Is everyone posted here including the reviewer above the age of 60.Read your comments back to yourselves. What a load of wordy bullshit You all sound like wankers. I don't think this play was levelled at wankers. It is not surprising the MTC usually chooses such safe, mundane and repetious plays for audiences such as yourselves. I thought it was the best MTC production since Pillowman. For Borneo to suggest that Tim Finn has no musical pedigree or his musical is untheatrical. God what a wanker

Alison Croggon said...

Anon, you are perfectly entitled to your view. If you actually check out this blog, you will see that differing opinions are very welcome. However, name-calling isn't, and ad hominem abuse is no substitute for argument. It hardly seems worth pointing out that, just because you disagree with someone, it doesn't mean that he or she is a "wanker".

In any case, you seem to be saying that Poor Boy is "safe, mundane and repetious" (sic)...but I'm sure that's not what you thought you meant. Take a letter, Dr Freud...

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed Poor Boy. I felt Cameron's interesting and at times witty script and Finn's pensive songs worked well together. The acting was superb. Well done to Cameron, Finn, Phillips and all those involved - you delivered a most enjoyable piece, which has inpired me and I'm sure many others to check out more theatre at the Sumner.

Anonymous said...

Antipodean envy. Finn is one of the best songwriters of his generation internationally, and Cameron is a fantastic writer. Why do people feel the urge to pull things to pieces unless they are in it/written it themselves? Tall poppy syndrome. Envy is odious. Get over it. Write your own show if you think you are so fabulous. Or perhaps you have, and nobody wanted it.