Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, September 6th [September 7]

I’ve been to three very different productions in the last week, but all very good.

‘The Kitchen Sink’ is a Red Stitch Theatre production of a new play by English playwright Tom Wells. It only had its English premiere about a year ago.

‘Kitchen sink drama’ is one of those phrases that has a sting in the tail. These days it can be used as a bit of an insult, with an imputation that the play’s themes or concerns are trivial or merely domestic. It was first used to describe a genre of English working class theatre that emerged in the 1950’s (John Osborne’s ‘Look Back In Anger’ for example) and the phrase has been transformed into something more pejorative, maybe because certain TV soaps became known as kitchen sink dramas.

But in this case the domestic world has universal resonance.

I LOVED this show. It was quite traditional theatre in many ways, which isn’t usually my bag, but it sucked me in and made me laugh and made me really care about the characters. I felt like I’d had a thoroughly nourishing night out at the theatre.

The action takes place over about a year, and the different seasons in that year are marked by Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, but that’s about as highbrow as it gets in this play. It’s all about one small family living in a fictional northern English town – Mum, Dad and two grown-up kids, including the gay son, Billy, who’s trying to get into art school with his lurid paintings of Dolly Parton, and the daughter, Sophie, who wants to teach ju jitsu to young girls, for reasons that only become apparent towards the end of the play.

Dad, Martin, played by Russell Fletcher, is a milk delivery man, possibly the last one on the planet, and he’s slowly but surely going out of business. Mum, Kath, is a school lunch lady (or possibly a lollypop lady, it’s not clear) but she’s the glue holding this family together. Kath is played by Chris Keogh and she’s simply one of the most adorable characters you’ll ever see on the stage.

There’s also a fifth character, a local plumber called Pete who’s in love with young Sophie, but who can’t ever seem to finish his sentences. So imagine how hard it is for him to declare his passion for Sophie. Each of the family members – and Pete – are all grappling with their own individual fears, and with a resistance to change.

The set is literally a kitchen, complete with a dodgy old kitchen sink whose faucets need to be turned on and off with a hammer, and this kitchen is the centre of the family’s life.
This play is funny, it’s sentimental, and it’s beautifully acted. The characters are comic characters but never caricatures, even when Kath the mum and her son Billy are standing on kitchen chairs dancing and singing Dolly Parton songs into soup ladles. You want to jump up and sing and dance along with them.

I particularly loved Tim Ross as Pete the plumber,the sweetest, most loyal beau a girl could ever wish for. He played Pete as understated and entirely believable.

It’s a traditional play, a ‘well-made play’ as they say, and in the end this is a play about transformation – once the characters have acknowledged their fears and embraced change – so it’s a feel-good play too!

The Kitchen Sink is on at Red Stitch Theatre in St Kilda until September 22nd.

‘Doku Rai’ was a show that premiered at the Darwin Festival recently, and also had a season at the Meat Market in North Melbourne last weekend. It will next be seen at the Adelaide Festival, and this was a much more challenging and complicated contemporary work than ‘The Kitchen Sink’.

It’s a collaboration between a group of East Timorese actors and musicians and some Australian theatre-makers from the Black Lung Theatre group. I saw some of these East Timorese artists performing, and also making visual artworks, when I first visited East Timor in 2004, so for me it was fascinating to see what they were doing now.

The words Doku Rai have been translated to mean ‘you dead man, I don’t believe you’, and the play starts with the simple telling of a traditional story about two brothers, one of whom is jealous of the other, and who organizes for him to die, using a doku or a death curse. From this kernel of a story the cast and their director, Thomas Wright, have created a piece which, for me, really captured some of the essence of what it’s like to live in East Timor post their independence from Indonesian rule.

The Australian cast apparently got together with the Timorese performers in June this year, in an abandoned colonial hotel on the island of Atauro, just off the coast from the capital Dili, and together they put together this new play. It sounds like conditions were pretty rough there, as they are in many parts of Timor still. Power going on and off, no water, constant threat of malaria, and some of that chaos has been incorporated into the show.
The set is simply one big room, with mattresses on the floor, pot plants, musical instruments scattered around,and a big wooden canoe in the middle of the stage, full of water. (In fact I went out to the island of Atauro in just such a canoe myself about six years ago – a very memorably and frightening four hour trip.)

And with that simple story of the man who has his brother killed, the cast have created a surreal plot about a man who will not die. There’s a doku in him, a death curse, and he keeps being killed over and over again – stabbed, drowned, you name it, it’s been tried – but every time, he comes back to life.

And within that plot device lies the essence of perhaps East Timor’s biggest challenge – the cycle of violence. Every now and then we hear news reports about flare-ups of inter-communal violence and burning of houses in different parts of Timor – mobs rampaging with machetes – and this play asks the question, how can that violence be stopped?

It is also a play within a play, in that at times the director and the performers break out of performing the show and talk about the process of putting the show together. It’s a post-modern theatrical device that shows us the insides of the workings of theatre. So you hear them debating what the whole project is about – is it just another case of well-meaning whitefellas coming to ‘help out’ their poor neighbours, to tell them what to do? It’s quite challenging for the audience too, in that it forces us to ask ourselves – why are we there? to see good theatre, or as an act of solidarity or charity?

Many of the East Timorese cast members are former freedom fighters so they know about death and violence. They’re also all musicians, and many play in a band called Galaxy, so the play is interspersed with about five original songs.

‘Doku Rai’ is performed in both English and Tetun, but there were sur-titles for the parts that weren’t in English.

This is one of the most interesting productions I’ve seen this year. Nothing about it is easy, just as nothing about forming a new nation out of such a violent and repressive history has been easy for the East Timorese.

‘Doku Rai’ was on at the Meat Market Arts House last week. If you missed it you might like to consider going to the Adelaide Festival next year where it will be on from February 28th to March 4th.

‘Top Girls’ is the latest play in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2012 season, on at the recently re-named Southbank Theatre. This is a work with an all-female cast, written back in the early 1980’s by English playwright Caryl Churchill, during the time that Maggie Thatcher was the British Prime Minister – the first female PM in Britain. So in some ways it’s a play very much of its time, but as I discovered last night when I went to see it, it’s still actually a very timely play, particularly maybe for Australian audiences who’ve been witnessing the responses and the debates over our first Australian female Prime Minister.

Caryl Churchill has revered status in the theatre world as someone who never sits still, and never takes the easy path. For a long time now she hasn’t bothered with the so-called ‘well-made play’. She likes to challenge her audiences. So in ‘Top Girls’, for example, most of the first half of the play is a dinner party at which the guests are famous female figures from history – some real, some fictional – who’ve got together to celebrate the fact that a contemporary English woman called Marlene has just been made CEO of her human resources company.

The guests include Pope Joan, a fictional female Pope from the 9th century; the Japanese Lady Nijo a memoirist from the 13th century; the fictional Patient Griselda from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’; and a woman in a painting by Flemish artist Breughel called Dull Gret. It’s a hilarious scene in which the women are waited on by a couple of waitresses wearing rabbit masks (one step further on from the Playboy Bunny ears, presumably) and the women tell their stories, comment on each others stories, talk over the top of each other, about the men they married, about the children they gave birth to and lost, and they drink steadily to drown their sorrows.

And the stories they tell each other carefully plant the seeds for what will happen in the second half of the play, which is a slightly more naturalistic story about Marlene and her work and her family members, and the dark secrets they keep from each other. I won’t give too much away but it’s quite a bleak view presented here, of the high price some women had to pay – and probably still have to pay – to be successful in a male-dominated workforce.

And Marlene turns out to be a Maggie Thatcher supporter, a fan of the conservative, individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps view of the world – shades of Gina Rinehart, actually.

There is flawless direction in this production by Jenny Kemp, and some stunning performances, in particular by a young actress called Eryn Jean Norvill who plays Marlene’s disturbed niece Angie, a teenager who is very seriously contemplating killing her mother. I believed every second of her performance.

As I said, this play left me feeling slightly bleak about relationships between men and women – the whole Mars/Venus thing – and about whether true equality between the sexes (not just equality but respect) is ever going to be possibl. But it is such good theatre, it had me on the edge of my seat the whole night. It was great to see a big group of male school students in there last night too and would love to have known what they thought about it.

‘Top Girls’ is on at the MTC’s Southbank Theatre until September 29th.

Next week – ‘Angela’s Kitchen’ (Malthouse Theatre) and ‘Walking Mark Rothko’ (La Mama).