This new production of David Williamson’s The Club has advertised its current tour with a quote from the Herald Sun, which describes it as “big, broad and very funny”. That doesn’t quite cover it. It became almost immediately apparent that “broad” was going to be the key word here. The overall calibre of the show was, sadly, that of sketch comedy, with all manner of shtick flying thick and fast.
What is fundamentally wrong with this production is its resounding lack of subtlety. In fact, it has so eschewed any kind of restraint and embraced such broad, caricatured portrayals that the style at times is positively clownish. Although some of the actors are worse offenders than others, the production has an overall tone of consistent overacting that I can only blame on director Bruce Myles, either for failing to weed it out or, at worst, actively encouraging it.
Perhaps it could be argued that, given the relatively consistent application of this style, it is ergo a valid approach, an “interpretation” of the text. I am very reluctant to make such an allowance. Although Williamson’s play uses dramatic conceits like any other work of comedy and is not above some pretty salty gags, it is essentially grounded in naturalism – however you slice it, this is not meant to be a work of farce, and that is precisely what Myles seems determined to turn it into.
This is most strongly felt in two of the main actors’ approach to characterisation. Given that the character of Jock, the former coach and past president, has a late arrival into the action, I was hoping that veteran actor John Wood would bring some dignity to the table. I was mistaken. Having seen Wood some years ago in a revival of The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin, I know that he is perfectly capable of delivering a nuanced performance that balances bold comedy and dramatic power. What a disappointment that he did not do so here. This makes me even more convinced that the blame lies with Myles’ direction.
Wood’s portrayal of Jock is surprisingly miscalculated. This is one of Williamson’s great roles for actors of a certain age, a seemingly garrulous warhorse who turns out to be deeply nasty and ultimately quite threatening despite his comedic moments, yet Wood almost turns it into pantomime. His “tough” moments simply come across as boorish and tepid, undermining the later twists in the story. To make matters worse, in the famous scene at the head of Act Two where Jock gets unwittingly stoned with Geoff (Guy Kable) the stroppy overpaid recruit, Wood’s performance takes such a prolonged detour into buffoonish physical comedy that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching outright slapstick.
Wood staggers, double-takes and lurches around the stage as if Jock had consumed two slabs of beer rather than a few puffs on a joint. Exaggeration doesn’t quite describe it. And not only does he mercilessly pull focus from Kable’s big moment to shine, he continues to drop gratuitous dollops of this “drugged” act over the rest of his scenes as well, all the way to his final (protracted) exit.
Yet, amazingly, someone else was worse. By far the most outrageous performance came from Denis Moore as Ted, the club president. Williamson’s Ted is a marvelous, multilayered character, a pathetic, pumped-up little jerk with a fierce ruthless streak and yet genuine love of the club and a commitment to making it better, bringing forth some real pathos by the end. Such a part should be a delightful challenge for an actor, yet Moore takes to it with a blowtorch, demolishing the role’s nuances with such ripe overacting that the effect was more that of bathos than either the requisite comedy or drama.
Ted comes across as a great fountain of cartoonish villainy and grotesque shtick that was uncalled for and woefully inappropriate. The one good thing I can manage to say about Moore’s mangling of this role was he managed to finally reign himself in at the eleventh hour and impart a passable take on Ted’s downbeat final moments, eliciting at least a smidgen of the requisite sympathy for his character, although given what had come before even this strained credibility.
The other actors weren’t nearly as much to blame, although to be frank they weren’t stunning either. Simon Wilton did an adequate job as the machiavellian Gerry, and Christopher Connelly should be commended for doing his best to give the beleaguered coach Laurie a modicum of dignity. Christopher Parker was actually quite good as Danny the aging player, giving the role the right pitch but having little opportunity to do so, given the small size of the part. Guy Kable as Geoff, on the other hand, fell somewhat victim to the overdone exaggeration that beset the leads, although some of this may have been sheer osmosis from sharing a scene with John Wood hamming like there’s no tomorrow.
What’s so deeply frustrating about all of this is that it bespeaks an implicit lack of faith in Williamson’s text, as though Myles and co. just aren’t confident that the script is intrinsically funny enough, and thus feel the need to add every bit of extra performative humour they can cram in. This desperate need to milk every laugh has the effect of all but smothering the moments of subtle drama that makes this classic Australian comedy great.
If you’ve previously seen a good production of The Club, this will disappoint. If you’ve never seen it before, then this would be a poor introduction. Williamson, and his audience, deserve better.
Glen Street Theatre presents
by David Williamson
Venue: Glen Street Theatre, Corner Glen Street and Blackbutts Rd, Belrose.
Dates: Thurs 7 February – Saturday 23rd February, 2008.
Performances: Preview Thurs 7 Feb 8pm, Tues – Sat at 8pm
Matinees: Wed 13 & 20 Feb at 11am, Sat 2pm, Sun 5pm.
Prices: From $37 - $57
Bookings: 9975 1455 or www.glenstreet.com.au