The True Story of Butterfish offers questions of scale. Bigger isn’t always better.
Curtis Holland, inexplicably to his Butterfish band mates, craves the anonymity and ordinariness of Kenmore. It’s an unremarkable slice of Brisbane suburbia, light years from the heady and hedonistic excesses of international music stardom.
Celebrated Brisbane author Nick Earls gives us a suffocatingly small character study. Curtis makes friends over the fence: single mum Kate, whose dreams don’t extend beyond getting her two kids through school; the 17-year-old daughter growing up too fast; the emo son with the smart-alec iGen savvy. Meanwhile, he’s mourning in silence over the death of his father and reconnecting with the brother who resents his absence for dad’s agonising last months.
Into this suburban sanctity storms Derek Frick, the cookie-cutter rock star and Butterfish front man, brought home by his own family tragedy but struggling with the sobriety demanded of Curtis’ rationalised new world. Only when he invades the stage, larger than life, does its size seem appropriate.
And that’s the dilemma with this play: it’s a diminutive study on an over-sized canvas.
The Powerhouse Theatre is a wonderful space, one of the few real assets of the Brisbane arts scene. But it’s not a great theatre venue, and Earls’ characters – fully-formed, certainly – have far too much room to breathe.
The story goes that Earls had struck a partnership with the cross-town La Boite company to stage his first attempt at playwriting (La Boite has adapted a number of his novels in the past) in the more confined Roundhouse Theatre. But with a new regime and tighter purse strings the production fell out of development. Brisbane Powerhouse Director Andrew Ross picked up the concept and developed the work for this year’s Brisbane Festival.
The production is flawed. The expansive, open stage is sparsely furnished for each scene – a couch, a kitchen bench, a piano – wheeled into place by the cast and a couple of stagehands in well-choreographed but fairly clunky scene changes. Ben Hughes’ lighting can’t hope to create intimacy in such a big space; it’s harsh and unforgiving and draws eyes away from the actors to the busy, unconcealed wings. Lawrence English’s sound design tries to fill the emptiness with background hustle and bustle, but it only makes the audience strain harder to pick up the unamplified actors.
Some scenes are barely audible, the performers at times over-reach to be heard, and the intimacy of the relationships is lost. Tragically, the wit and sensitivity of Earls’ words simply evaporate into the void.
The character of Curtis is a difficult stage creature, too. He is emotionally blank on the surface, with good reason, but Myles Pollard really struggles to endear him to the audience as a result. The NIDA graduate is lifeless on stage, sleepwalking through most scenes, staring blankly at the rest of the cast. It might befit the character’s state of mind but was never going to work in the warehouse space.
There are no bad performers here. Penny Harpham and Jason McLaren are bright sparks as eyes-widening teenagers Annaliese and Mark. Nathaniel Dean, a terrific actor with an AFI award for the brilliant Walking on Water, juggles the dual roles of the brother (mercifully refusing to play Patrick’s homosexuality for laughs) and sozzled rock star Derek without dropping a ball. And Caroline Brazier is a really charming Kate, grounding the story in the sort of suburban familiarity that Earls ultimately covets.
What’s satisfying about The True Story of Butterfish, which Earls wrote in sync with the well-reviewed novel, is that it’s such a strong text. Brisbane theatre-goers have seen too many plays this year that aren’t held together by good writing. It’s an amiable Brisbane yarn that deserved better treatment.
Brisbane Powerhouse & Brisbane Festival 2009 present
THE TRUE STORY OF BUTTERFISH
by Nick Earls
Venue: Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, 119 Lamington Street, NEW FARM
Dates: Thur 1 – Sunday 25 October 2009
Times: Sun, Tue & Wed 6.30pm, Thu – Fri 7.30pm and Sat 2pm + 7.30pm
Tickets:Opening Night $55 All Tickets, All other dates $46(f)/$38(c), $35 (s/g) $35(Groups 6+)
Bookings: 07 3358 8600 or brisbanepowerhouse.org