Photos - Jeff Busby
It’s a very exciting time for Melbourne with the new MTC Theatre in full swing. Within the venue there’s the Lawler Studio, which, seating 150 people, is the perfect theatre for more intimate or experimental works. Then there’s the very impressive 500 seat Sumner Theatre that is most obviously notable for its steeply pitched seating, giving all seats a fantastic view of the stage. This week the Sumner Theatre held the premiere of Rockabye, a work by one of Australia’s most successful contemporary playwrights, Joanna Murray-Smith. It’s an incredibly slick show where in most instances the elements come together and a rather rare but wonderful thing happens; everything just works.
Rockabye, at least to begin with, is all about Sidney (Nicki Wendt). She’s a forty something Londoner, a one time International Rock/Pop singing hit who blitzed the European market and is now not so famous and not so wealthy. The answer, of course, is to release a comeback album. With long time manager Alfie (Richard Piper), reliable personal assistant Julia (Kate Atkinson), and her rather thick Emo toy boy Jolyon (Daniel Frederiksen) by her side, even Sidney starts to believe that she can make it big once more. However, there is one problem. If everything goes according to Sidney’s plans, she will soon be the mother of a baby from Africa.
This is a play that is largely a satirical look at popular culture, issues facing upper middle class women, and celebrity. With the raising of pertinent issues such as same sex relationships and their raising of children, career vs motherhood, naming children “after produce” (in the same vein as Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Apple’), professional death after forty and material excess, this work could very easily have become a jumbled mess. However, somewhat miraculously, it avoids this and amidst the witty one-liners, Sidney’s sparkles, and the bright lights, this work brings forth debate. The biggest of which is about the adoption of children from Third World Countries.
Set designer Brian Thomson has created the brilliantly colourful, modern, over the top environment in which Sidney lives. The pivotal piece is the brightly coloured backdrop featuring multiple images of Sidney’s face, much like the Andy Warhol screen prints of celebrity faces. It is a confronting reminder that this work is also about recognising oneself and where one comes from. Sections of this artwork then slide across so that pieces of the set can seamlessly slide through them, on and off the stage. At one point a walk in robe spans at least half the length of the stage, just one piece that exemplifies the life of excess to which Sidney has become accustomed. Costume designer Esther Marie Hayes really brings the characters to life, whilst Peter Farnan’s sound design and Philip Lethlean’s lighting come into play most notably in the few instances when the bright lights and music of Sidney’s world are replaced with that of the moonlight and cries of children.
As seems to be her wont, Murray-Smith uses two well-educated, upper middle class characters through which to present the real story, that being the adoption debate. Both Layla (Zahra Newman) and Tobias (Pacharo Mzembe) have been educated at Cambridge University. Both also have great power within their professional capacities to determine Sidney’s future. Layla is the adoption officer with the power to approve or turn down Sidney’s dream of adoption, and Tobias is one of the few journalists who have agreed to promote Sidney’s all but dead singing career. Both characters are also black, and their individual experiences in the early stages of their lives makes them prime vehicles through which to present a combination of viewpoints that are considered, professional, and emotional. Sidney, cleverly, is given little voice, so that in this instance, the issue lies not with her or her ability to be a good mother, but in whether the removal of a child from their community and history of birth is the best solution for the child and their troubled homeland. There is however something just a little too convenient about Layla’s and Tobias’s professional and personal connection to the issue at hand. Whilst this play doesn’t pretend to have any answers, as the character of Tobias becomes all the more unlikely, the strength and credibility of his integral argument is slightly undermined.
All of the characters in this work are walking talking clichés but the cast play them with such conviction that they are instantly likeable and there is no choice but to go along for the ride. Wendt as Sidney, and Piper as Alfie and the Swedish Kurt, are particularly strong and the two on stage together is an impressive sight. All the performers maintain their British accents and despite her smaller role as Esme, Betty Bobbitt also delivers some ripping lines. Beresford as Tobias perhaps performs with too much dramatic emphasis towards the end but then this to a certain extent is the nature of the character he’s given to work with. Simon Phillips, whose direction has tended to encourage over-reaching performances in more intimate venues than this, has brought out the very best in his performers and the creation of their excessive characters.
This is undoubtedly some of the most exciting work to come out of Australia but interestingly, it is not set in Australia, nor does it feature characters or issues that are unique to our country, culture or history. The issues raised are universal, and considering the success of the works of Murray-Smith abroad, it goes to show that this, along with an almighty dose of clever humour, is a crucial element in producing works that are marketable. As for the MTC Theatre, it is a venue that will hopefully make theatre accessible and fashionable and if our State theatre company continues to produce quality works such as this, it will go a long way towards projecting Australian theatre in the most desirable and necessary of directions.
Melbourne Theatre Company
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: MTC Theatre, Sumner
Dates: 8 August to 20 September
Opening night: Thursday 13 August at 8:00pm
Tickets: From $58.20 (Under 30s – $30)
Bookings: MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 or mtc.com.au