Based on Bryce Courtenay’s 2001 novel Smokey Joe’s Café, Honey is billed as a “play with music”, although it is pretty much a conventional book musical, sans live musicians or a chorus. It should be noted (as the advertising does not) that this production seems more of a “rehearsed reading” than a full staging, a tryout production in a tiny studio space with no set and minimal props which would, were it not for some rather good period outfits, appear very much in the vein of a workshop rather than a true production.
To be frank, even aside from the modest production values, this really is not much of a show. Having not read Courtenay’s novel I can’t attest to how good an adaptation this may be, but as a work of musical theatre in its own right, Honey is sorely lacking.
Set in the 1970s, Thommo, a shell-shocked Aussie Vietnam vet, struggles with the fact that his young daughter Honey has leukemia, likely as a result of his own exposure to Agent Orange. When the surviving members of his unit roll up for a reunion, it turns out that their old Sarge Shorty has a plan to raise money for Honey’s healthcare. The plan involves teaming up with an ex-Vietcong cannabis expert to cultivate a large crop, which they will convert into the highly-saleable aphrodisiac “hash honey”. There is something charming about this story, and perhaps its heart is in the right place. Mateship, family, a disregard for the letter of the law: it’s all there. The characters are also quite engaging, if more than a little obvious at times. Yet it just doesn’t seem to hang together.
As a noted former troop-entertainer hailed as the “Mother of All Vietnam Veterans”, it is clear that Desmond’s goal here is rehabilitating the image of Vietnam vets, soldiers ignored and vilified where previous generations were regarded as heroes. Although the play is not overtly patriotic or in any way saying that the Vietnam War was “right”, its portrayal of the many problems faced by these chirpy vets seems inordinately upbeat and solvable, and thus somewhat sugar-coated.
More troubling, however, is Honey’s depiction of the relationship between Thommo and his wife Wendy. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Thommo is beset by nightmares and temper problems, and on three separate occasions he threatens his wife, in one instance lunging at her with a knife, in another throttling her. Wendy displays a degree of distress over this, yet in each case she relents, comforts and forgives him in very short order. As tragic as such relationships between Vietnam vets and their partners were (and are), the play’s rather casual manner of absolving Thommo of his domestic violence (with song lyrics like “our love will last forever” no less!) really seems rather questionable.
But perhaps my most overriding criticism of this new musical play is that, frankly, it just isn’t very good. The music is formulaic, the lyrics obvious and the resulting songs unmemorable. The script on the whole was predictable and in serious need of editing, although it was infused with some delightfully well-observed nuggets of the Australian vernacular. Overall, what could perhaps have been an interesting story came across as poorly-handled and frequently quite corny.
The one aspect of the production that does deserve praise is the cast, who gave their all to this disappointing material. Everyone involved was well-cast and charismatic. Leading man Daryl Heath as Thommo may have lacked a strong singing voice, but made up for it with an easy charm, and was well partnered by Cath McGraffin as Wendy, doing a great job with an awkwardly-written role.
Home and Away veteran Lynne McGranger was very good as the sniping mother-in-law, and particularly when briefly doubled as a hilarious socialite. Jonathan Chan is also very solid as the green-thumbed former Vietcong, as is the charming Anna Crawford as Wendy’s friend Maureen.
A strong ensemble of actors plays “The Vets from Hell”, good actors and singers one and all. Of particular note is the seasoned Andrew Doyle, who delivers a nicely calibrated performance as Shorty, the tough yet compassionate former Sarge. And, despite having the fewest credits to his name, extra plaudits go to Jonathon Freeman as Animal, an especially charming, natural actor who absolutely brought his supporting role to life.
I honestly wish I could say nicer things about this production, but with the exception of its great cast, Honey really has very little to recommend it.
From Bryce Courtenay’s Smoky Joe’s Café
HONEY – a play with music
Book: Lorrae Desmond & Gael Ballantyne
Music: Charlie Hull, Martine DeCock, Scott Ogier & Doug Parkinson
Lyrics: Lorrae Desmond
‘Change the World’ by Lorrae Desmond and Doug Parkinson
Venue: Riverside Theatre | Corner Church and Market Streets
Previews: 19 and 23 October 8pm, plus 20 and 24 October 2pm
Season: October 24 – November 3 Wed-Sat 8pm, plus Wed and Sat 2pm matinees
Tickets: $35, concessions $25, Veteran groups of 20 or more $22.
Bookings: (02) 8839 3399 or online www.riversideparramatta.com.au