David Williamson is back! After announcing his retirement a few years ago, the Australian playwright has made a comeback with a ‘romcom’, a light-hearted play written to showcase the comedic talents of Caroline O’Connor premiering with the Melbourne Theatre Company. O’Connor’s other talents – dancing and singing - are not used, except for some onscreen singing ‘in her dreams’. She and director Simon Phillips had some input into the script, providing feedback for Williamson as the play developed.
The play revolves around O’Connor’s character Scarlett, a 36-year-old waitress who lives with her mother, has no boyfriend, and who compensates during her time off by watching old romantic movies and in her working hours by rerunning them in her head. Her accomplice in this is Gordon (a colourful Bob Hornery), the gay kitchen hand in the restaurant kitchen: they often converse by means of tag lines from movies, which the other then has to identify. The plot for Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot was inspired by Williamson’s father’s favourite film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Danny Kaye.
The action onstage is cut with old movies shown on a huge screen at the back of the stage. As Scarlett drifts deeper into her reveries of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, she takes her place as the heroine of their movies. These film sequences are wonderfully entertaining and drew laughs and cries of recognition from the audience, who also loved the trademark Williamson one-liners. Most of these are politically incorrect, which is refreshing, but not so appealing if you are sensitive about being middle-aged, overweight, gay or mentally ill. The opening scene between Scarlett and her mother (Monica Maughan) does lose its comic effect by being corny and in bad taste.
O’Connor takes the ‘loser’ character of Scarlett and makes it a tour de force. Physically her Scarlett is a slumped creature with a drawling colourless voice, but the contained way in which O’Connor keeps in character is magnetic to watch and keeps the audience onside. Her slapstick is faultless and her drunk scenes outrageous. Her impersonations of other leading ladies in the filmed sequences hit the right note between imitation and exaggeration.
The other kitchen staff - chefs Steve (Andrew McFarlane) and Gary (Simon Wood) and waitress Shelley (Marney McQueen) - provide an authentic restaurant setting complete with ribald humour, stereotypical characters and endless chopping of vegetables. The pace is fast and the sight gags and one-liners keep coming. Shaun Gurton’s set is impressive: a gleaming stainless steel fully-functioning kitchen that slides noiselessly to one side or the other to accommodate a section of the restaurant or Scarlett’s lounge room.
Any classic movie buffs will relish the screening of so many favourite cinematic moments from such favourite as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, Tarzan and his Mate and The Wizard of Oz. These clips are integrated into the onstage drama for maximum comic effect and the theme is nicely maintained at the interval and the end of the production by the banners and voiceovers. They make it clear that the plot is predictable and not to be taken seriously. Williamson is not tackling world issues this time, although the environment does get a look in, but his voice is recognisable in the social satire and the flavour of the current Aussie vernacular.
The play had an enthusiastic reception and the cast beamed as they took several bows. It was good entertainment made memorable by O’Connor’s masterful presence, but could not compare with some screen versions using the same fantasy theme, notably Dennis Potter’s television series such as Pennies from Heaven. It is a theme more commonly used on the screen, but this stage production allows for more pratfalls and split-second timing than could be used in the cinema these days. Charlie Chaplin will never be replicated on the screen, but O’Connor’s Scarlett brings back other cinematic moments - of Chaplin’s beloved tramp.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
SCARLETT O’HARA AT THE CRIMSON PARROT
by David Williamson
Venue: Arts Centre Playhouse
Dates: Wednesday 11 June - 12 July 2008
Times: Mon & Tue 6.30pm (9 & 10 Jun 8pm), Wed 1pm & 8pm (no mat 11 Jun), Thu & Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8.30pm (7 Jun 2 & 8pm)
Tickets: $16 - $75.30
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 or www.mtc.com.au