Russell Lambert (Matt Wilson) is not a very impressive chap. He’s just turned 30 and works part-time at a laundromat, while his social life revolves entirely around his membership of the Dr Who Fan Club of Tasmania. He has a girlfriend, the earnest Sarah (Clare Gray), but, still hurt by being jilted by his fiancée years earlier, he’s keeping things casual. In short, Russell doesn’t expect much out of life. But when the fan club’s president mysteriously disappears on the eve of a long-planned Dr Who convention, Russell must take charge. Who is trying to sabotage the event, and why? Will he be elected the new president? Can he save his friends from the forces of darkness?
Wilson and Gray make a likable team as the club’s resident Romeo and Juliet, while Roger Chevalier is strong as the kindly father-figure of the group. Ben Paine as Fraser, a daft but sincere young fellow who idolises Russell, is intermittently hilarious, with an all-or-nothing acting style that’s hard to ignore. As the sinister former president of the club, Hilda, Noreen La Mottee is a delight, going for the jugular in best super-villain tradition. Andrew McNicol, however, is miscast as Russell’s smug older brother Peter, detracting from the major subplot involving the two brother’s ongoing feud. He doesn’t quite match up to the character as written.
In general, the personal subplots are a little overdrawn. There are some long scenes in the first act dealing with Russell and Sarah’s relationship (he doesn’t know if he can commit, she’s doing everything she can to bolster his fragile ego) and the animosity between Russell and Peter. These interludes are not without interest but are over-explained, bringing the action to a virtual standstill.
But the pace picks up nicely in the second act, with a location change and a few twists and turns. The stone cliff backdrop of the Peacock Theatre is put to clever use, the addition of mood lighting and a bank of old computer monitors making it the perfect hideout. (I won’t reveal what other technological treats you can expect …. but it rhymes with garlic….).
Director Paul McIntyre's program notes explain that Who Knows contains a quote from ‘every single Dr Who story from 1963 through to the present day’. I don’t quite understand how this is possible but it’s a remarkable feat. Not being exactly Who-crazy myself, I couldn’t claim to have noticed every quote, or even most of them: I suppose what I did pick up on was an unusual tone, a sort of general grandiosity.
Of course a lot of these quotes are played for laughs, but not all. The thing about dialogue from Dr Who is that most of is just really good stuff. Some lines are almost Shakespearean, full of portent and flair, some are deadpan or cynical, some are just flat-out bizarre.
So although parts of Who Knows feel like a spoof, pretty much what you’d expect when going to see a play about Dr Who fans, there are moments when it rises above that and becomes something rather intriguing. (I'm not implying that only the ‘borrowed’ lines in Who Knows are well-written, I'm sure there’s a lot of great stuff also written by Paul McIntyre. The problem is that, not having picked up all the references, I couldn’t necessarily tell you which are which.)
In a way, this is found art. Put in another context, the lines from an old TV show are elevated somehow; or, at least, the process allows us to look at them in a different way. And I would agree with the playwright (and the characters in Who Knows) that Dr Who is a phenomenon worth taking a closer look at. Its appeal is complex and difficult to pin down. The formula changes a little with each new incarnation of the Doctor, and yet some essential quality is retained, recaptured again and again over the years. Perhaps it’s the personality of the Doctor himself and his slightly cock-eyed way of looking at things; as though he’s always laughing at some inner joke that no one else gets.
(It’s interesting that recent seasons of Dr Who have been either fantastic or woeful: even the writers of the show don’t seem to completely understand what they’re dealing with.)
Apart from the Who-for-all, there are other pop culture morsels flying around in Who Knows, with everything from Fawlty Towers to Little Britain getting a guernsey. Although these occasionally hit their mark, I would argue that they’re not needed. The Who influence is enough for any one play, and other allusions dilute the effect.
So what sort of play is this, really? Just a pastiche of cultural references? It has the potential to be much more.
There’s a point in Who Knows, with half the cast semi-naked and locked in a cage and the other half chuckling maniacally and divulging unlikely back story, where everything really lifts off. We suddenly find ourselves in a very strange land indeed (Joe Orton springs to mind, for some reason).
I say, the stranger the better: what better tribute to the story of a Time Lord who travels the universe in a police box? This is a bold theatrical experiment in the guise of an old-fashioned sketch show. I hope it will continue to evolve and that the experimental aspect comes further and further to the fore.
Old Nick Company presents
by Paul McIntyre
Venue: Peacock Theatre | Salamanca Arts Centre
Dates: 17th - 28th February 2009
Times: Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm
Bookings: Centertainment 6234 5998