Don's PartyLeft - L-R: Colin Lane, Glenn Hazeldine, Steve Le Marquand. Cover - Christopher Pitman, Steve Le Marquand. Photos - Jeff Busby

1969 was a good year for popular music and this production of Don’s Party, which is set on the night of the 1969 Federal election, opens with some of the songs that could have been played at the party: Obla Di Obla Da by the Beatles, Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison and You Really Got Me by the Kinks. With a Playhouse audience comprised mainly of babyboomers, you would think everyone would be up and dancing, but the reaction to the whole experience was warm and amused, rather than excited or challenged.

The actors did everything to involve the audience, from starting the play with the lights up while the party preparations were underway to putting in a swag of superb performances, but something did not gel. The play has certainly dated to some extent and has become a drawing-room drama, albeit in Australian suburbia, where the initially shocking issues of promiscuity, wife-swapping and lesbianism now seem rather tame, but that is not the only problem.

It is over 30 years since the first performance of Don’s Party. David Williamson’s writing changed radically in those 30 years and became minimalist in the 1990s, with short punchy scenes following hard on each other. The structure of Don’s Party is looser, with no defined scenes, rather a handful of mini-plots that converge in the mayhem of a party where most of the participants are getting increasingly drunk. There are a number of climaxes and revelations, but the action leading up to these is slow and naturalistic, with banal party conversation setting the pace. And it is the pace that flags at times in this production.

Director Peter Evans has encouraged the actors to put as much skill into reacting to the dialogue as into delivering their own lines. This chain reaction effect gives us plenty to enjoy onstage but rather slows down the pace. In spite of the disappointing flat spots, the performances were outstanding and the tricky business of the characters being onstage most of the time was well handled. Travis McMahon played an endearing Mack and shone in his most drunken moments. Glenn Hazeldine had perfect comic timing and a riveting stage presence as the accountant Simon. Mandy McElhinney gave us a lovely portrait of a frustrated and angry 60s housewife. The most believable of all was Alison White as Jenny, who spent much of her time sitting brooding in a corner with a migraine, but who added the right degree of realism and drama to a play peopled with caricatures.

Set designer Dale Ferguson use an open-plan house set, complete with 60s paraphernalia - orange and green vinyl kitchen chairs, Tupperware, coloured paper lampshades and a radiogram. It is cluttered, tacky and designed for comic effect. The partygoers drift from kitchen to hall to lounge room, staying in character as they hang in the background and make their entrances into the main action. Hazeldine’s physical comedy drew one of the biggest laughs of the night on one of his entrances.

The production of Don’s Party shows the play for what it is: an odd mixture of comedy, caricature, realism and social history, enjoyable and amusing, full of recognisable Aussie characters and packed with dramatic tension. It may not have the shock value it had originally, but we can still appreciate the impact it must have had then.

Maybe in another fifty years, for a generation that didn’t live through the late 60s and early 70s, the comedy will take on a new life. For today’s audience, largely made up of a generation that is nostalgic for those times, the play has a poignancy that often overrides the comedy. David Williamson is only too aware of this. In a note that prefaces the programme, he talks about the broken dreams of those who were married and reaching their thirties by 1969, and of the tension between lost ideals and the need for commitment. He writes, “Don’s Party is called a comedy, but there’s a lot of sadness at its core.”

Melbourne Theatre Company
Don’s Party
by David Williamson

Venue: The Playhouse. The Arts Centre
Dates & Performance Times: 8 January to 10 February 2007. Mon & Tues 6.30pm, Wed 1pm & 8pm, Thurs & Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.
Duration: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one interval
Ticket Prices: Tickets: $16-$72.10
Bookings: 1300 136 166