Colour Sergeant Atkins is a man haunted by the ghosts of his past. It is 1946 and he has been left in charge of the British colony of Batundi in Africa, a thankless assignment at a remote outpost in the dying days of the British Empire. They don't make men like him anymore - the world has changed. But a good design lasts, and as long as Colour Sergeant Atkins has the strength in him, then order, authority and a certain kind of dignity will be preserved. Forgotten but not yet gone, he waits for the orders he needs to tell him what to do next.
The Colours is a one-man show by local theatre dynamo Peter Houghton, the stylistic successor to two previous works in a similar vein, in collaboration with Anne Browning as director. The first was Houghton's critically-acclaimed The Pitch, in which a budding screenwriter has only one hour to get his atrociously bad screenplay into a form that will impress the producers in a high-pressure Hollywood pitch. The second, The China Incident, tackles the chaotic world of political spin, where a highly-paid political PR consultant frantically juggles a stream of phone calls, once again in only an hour. In both shows, one performer manages to do the work of several, constructing an ensemble of characters by switching effortlessly between accents, impressions and movement. These shows are smorgasbords of theatrical range and technique, driven by the boundless energy of both smart scripts and versatile performers.
It helps to place The Colours in that context. Those familiar with the earlier works will instantly recognise the style, but while The Colours is just as sharp and frenetic as its stylistic cousins, there is also a more sombre side which adds an extra dimension, and as a result, a little more depth, to this show.
Between and sometimes during the deftly-executed comic set-pieces, Houghton has his stoic Sergeant Atkins indulge in the occasional soulful reflection about the reality of life in the army, with insightful and often moving observations on war and history. If it sounds trite, it isn't, because for all the fun Houghton pokes at his Sergeant, his script is imbued with considerable empathy and no small degree of respect for a kind of man we don't see very often these days.
You've seen bits of Colour Sergeant Atkins before. He is more than a little reminiscent of an early Captain Vimes as so eloquently told by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series. He has the devotion of Corporal Jones from Dad's Army, and at the mention of fuzzies and cold steel I half expected to be told how they don't like it up 'em. Behind the hysteria and hammed-up parody, he even inhabits the soul of the drill sergeant in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, who exhorts his troops to join him in marching up and down the square. Indeed, Colour Sergeant Atkins is so convincing and ultimately likeable because we all recognise him from somewhere.
And that, really, is the point of this play, one feels. You feel for this character, alone in a hell-hole in deepest, darkest Africa, talking to troops who aren't there and reliving the gore and the glory of past battles while in the background the phone rings - a sign that someone, both literally and metaphorically, is trying to get through to him. For while The Colours is comedy first, and a farcical one at that, you genuinely care how it ends, for the sake of the character. That makes it something more.
In the cosy setting of MTC's newly-opened Lawler Studio, The Colours is an intimate performance. The set is as lush and rich in detail as MTC's sets always are, while simple but creative lighting is used to great emotional effect in parts. But it is Houghton who brings the show to life, full of energy and using every inch of the stage and filling it with presence far beyond his own. He has the audience completely captivated from first to last, whether leaping about to defend the honour of the last of the Old Contemptibles, or sitting in existential silence after a moment of pained reflection. Oddly enough it is not even Sergeant Atkins who steals the show, but a young private called Smertz, and he is nowhere to be seen! A testament indeed to Peter Houghton's fine acting ability and the gentle, selectively restraining hand of Anne Browing's direction.
Houghton has brought to life, through incisive writing and flawless portrayal, a man, who, at the end of the day, stands literally for a certain kind of dignity. A man, who, no matter what you might say about him, will be missed. I implore you - do him the honour of seeing him before he goes.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
written and performed by Peter Houghton
Director Anne Browning
Venue: MTC Theatre, The Lawler Studio
Dates: 26 August to 12 September 2009
Opening Night: Friday 28 August at 7.30pm
Tickets: $30 - $35 (Under 30’s $20)
Bookings: MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au