Roland Henning has writer’s block - but don’t mention that word! It’s the jinx that all writer’s fear, the ponderous elephant sitting in creativity’s corner and the central premise of this Gow’s first full-length play in a decade - coincidence? It’s tempting to draw all kinds of conclusions from the parallels between Gow’s life and this work, but at the end of the day it’s the work that matters while the rest is pure conjecture.
Toy Symphony also heralds the return of shining star Richard Roxburgh to the stage, after a seven year absence while he’s been romancing the big screen - and it’s directed by Neil Armfield, so, it comes with a great deal of expectation and hope this play, it’s a lot to live up to.
We open with Roland seeking help from a psychiatrist (Justine Clarke) for his distressing and debilitating condition. There’s a lovely writerly flourish from Gow as Roland describes the creative process and the block - it’s delivered beautifully by Roxburgh - but the play is a little slow to get started until we flashback and visit Roland’s childhood in the Sutherland Shire. Roxburgh is truly delightful here as a can’t-sit-still-in-his-seat twelve year old who eagerly pre-empts the answers in Mrs Walkham’s (Monica Maugham) history class. It’s a charming performance by Maugham who is one of Roland’s early champions, helping him to cure another strange and hilarious condition (I won’t spoil it for you) by putting pen to paper. It is Mrs Walkham too who plays a pivotal role in helping him find his way back from the creative quagmire in adulthood. Maugham is clearly an audience favourite, her first scene concluding with rapturous spontaneous applause.
We return to the psychiatrist’s office several times and it’s here where we start to explore the dark places; how writer’s become blocked and what keeps them there. There’s a dramatic shift of mood and tempo and things become slightly heavy under the weight of their importance in this adult world.
It’s the childhood scenes that are the most exhilarating, chiefly the friendship between Roland and his Latvian friend Nick (Guy Edmonds) which provides some of the most touching moments in the play. There is warmth and sincerity here, and a beautiful lightness to the writing that allows these moments to touch us more deeply.
Russell Dykstra is immensely entertaining as a kaleidoscope of colourful characters, most notably as the side-splitting Steve Gooding - the sexually confused school bully with the Warrick Capper wig.
But the true magic of this play lies in the performance of the charismatic Roxburgh. I could watch him read the phone book and I’d still be interested, which is just as well seeing there are several pockets in the play that feel overly lengthy and expositional.
There are however moments of pure unadulterated childlike wonder that make this play special. The re-enacting of Roland’s childhood play in pantomime style to the tune of ‘Haydn’s Toy Symphony’ is rich with a kind of magical enchantment reminiscent of The Nutcracker Suite. Tess Schofield’s beautiful costuming comes to the fore here, as does Damien Cooper’s lighting design which makes the scene feel like a music box diorama.
Ralph Myers’ minimalist set is bold in its simplicity and works well to depict the nature of the creative space of the mind, where wonderful ideas can appear fully formed seemingly from nowhere.
It’s a phenomenal cast, directed with an assured hand, in a play that has a clever central conceit, but in the end I just couldn’t help wanting more; although perhaps that was just the weight of some truly great expectations.
Company B presents
by Michael Gow
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills.
Dates: 15 November – 22 December 2007
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday to Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full $52. Seniors (excluding Fri/Sat evenings) & Groups 10+ $44. Concession $32.
Under 27: $32 tickets for Tuesday 6.30pm available from 10am on the day (subject to availability).
Bookings: (02) 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au