Left - Mairead Berne and Eammon Bryant
You hear amazing things on buses. You don't have to be especially attentive to get the odd credit card number, for example, declared loudly into a mobile. Just yesterday, the woman next to me was none-too-discreet in relating her part in an intervention in a suicide attempt, the night before. Or something like that.
The quiet achiever of Australian theatre, producer & creative director Augusta 'Gus' Supple, has noted this, and relied upon it to stage what is, to the best of my (limited) knowledge, a world-first. Specifically, she's commissioned no less than '4 directors, 2 weeks, 8 writers'; actually, 16 writers (8 showcased in the first week, the rest in the second), who were importuned to hop on the 428 bus, from Circular Quay to Canterbury, and dramatise their experiences. A stroke of genius, inasmuch as it practically guarantees theatrical accessibility; the proof's in the pudding, since it's seen, for instance, a bevy of bus-drivers attend. Theatre is always thrilling when one can directly identify, from one's own personal experience, and who hasn't seen at least some of these characters on a bus, or at a stop?
A caveat: 18 short works, time, space and my notoriously unreliable short-term, less-than-total recall may conspire such that I do injustice to certain contributors, by omission, or sequential transposition; if so, for that, I apologise in advance.
One of the delights of the night is the familiar spectre of a crowded bus-stop. There's the guy handing out now-ubiquitous commuter rag Mx, which about half the people welcome, and half shun, as if to say, 'please, I'm strictly SMH and only watch SBS', before heading home to indulge the guilty pleasure of NI, or Who Weekly, on the dunny. Then a wonderful sequence, in which all would-be commuters, in various modes of dress, are on the same page, at the same time.
The opening gambit, for week 2, is Day Pass, penned by Jasper Marlow, directed by Lou Fischer, and performed by Cheryl Ward, Jan Langford-Penny, Emma Harris & Josipa Draisma, is so short even chronic ADHD sufferers will have no trouble applying themselves. It centres on a small group of people vociferously abusing the otherwise celebrated object of their derision. Yes, the 428.
Hot on its heels, one of the picks of the bunch, in Patrick Lenton's Waiting For The 428, directed by Ngaire O'Leary, and featuring Mairead Berne as a power-dressed businesswoman; Eammon Bryant (what is this, some Celtic conspiracy?), as the Guru; and last, but by means least, Jan Langford-Penny, as the Crone. Bryant & Langford-Penny shine, in vividly animating their respective streetpersons: the Crone, a characterful, fiercely-intelligent baglady, who invokes the 428 as a mythical form of transportation, that will never arrive; the Guru, her ex-husband and barefooted, trenchcoated foil, who breaks down, crying at the feet of the businesswoman, pleading his unworthiness to board the bus, should it ever arrive. With references to the timetable as the holy book, luminous performances, and an enviable script, the price of admission is easily covered by this work alone. Bravo!
Pass, by Noelle Janaczewska and directed by Anne-Maree Magi, for mine, proved a little too try-hard. Rather than exploiting the inexhaustibly rich and concentrated stock of human differences and dissonances which swirls, magically, around public transportation hubs & portals, this was more of an attempt to intellectualise, speculate and free-associate around the word 'pass'. Sure, in the process, it touched on the interpersonal spectrum described above, but obliquely, fleetingly and in a way that was more frustrating than satisfying. Too academic, dry, detached and pretentious. Worse still, it didn't really work, despite its somewhat linguistic acrobatics and the choir-like aesthetic, with the actors crowded together with a churchlike linear purity. It was an odd man out. This is not, however, to disparage the contributions of Nick Curnow, Felino Delloso, Jay Duncan, Lucy Goleby, Carla Nirella, or Will Snow.
Fernando shuttled us back to the world of feeling and the tangible, this time from the deeply personal perspective of a driver who, in-between advising passengers, relates a charming tale of suburban romance, with his middle-aged muse, Cheryl. This is achieved, beautifully, thanks to a sensitive, affectionate, well-observed script, by Joanna Erskine, and similarly adherent performance, by Leo Domigan. This, too, directed by the obviously talented Ngaire O'Leary who, presumably, devised an upturned plastic chair, with circular base, to suffice as a steering-wheel. So clever. And it worked so well.
Fallen Fighters, 1, 2, & 3, by Tahli Corin, are amusing vignettes that served as links between other works. Directed by Supple, and featuring the very considerable and well-matched talents of John Keightley & Victoria Greiner, they are shoutdowns 'tween Keightley's old digger and Greiner's Newtownian, pink-haired, nose-ringed individualist. A titanic clash of old guard versus new ensues, with each insisting the other take the one remaining seat on the bus. Though a little repetitive and lacking the depth of wit needed to optimally sustain its capacity to engage and amuse, these interludes are delivered with such commitment and raw energy so as to overcome even that lack, which would otherwise might be glaring, rather than just there.
Her Body is by Matt Edgerton and directed by Louise Fischer. It unites Clare Blumer & Daniel Nemes. Nemes is bored stiff; almost psychotically so, as he envisages the grab-poles as monkey-bars and his more heroic, less corporatised self, swinging to freedom and glory, via the escape-hatch. Meanwhile, Blumer obsesses over her just-completed job interview, with the cream dream, who boards her bus. Thus, her journey is in avoiding the sight of her prospective employer. It's the very stuff your average bus-trip is made of. Well, mine, anyway. Highly engaging.
Oliver Twist Is, by Donna Abela, directed by Scott Selkirk, and starring Mairead Berne, Bruno Xavier, Felino Delloso, Cheryl Ward, Matt Charleston, Lib Campbell and Mark Dessaix, takes us for a ride in which a young girl struggles to generate an original thought, while grappling with Dickens; a young man is caught in a different struggle, zooming between unkind, unclean and otherwise inane contemplations, befitting the boredom and mindlessness suggested by the very act of the regular commute. Meanwhile, another man, an outsider, even in the theoretically egalitarian environs of a public bus, reflects his timidity and uncertainty. All are relieved of their respective angst, when a young family, surely born from the loins of the devil, boards. Ward is brilliant, as the unsuccessfully domineering mum, trying in vain to rein-in her wayward, disruptive, raucous, incorrigible kids, played with obvious relish and skill by Charleston, Campbell & Dessaix. Dare I say, terrifyingly hilarious: we've all travelled with these people.
Story 1 is by Lexi Freiman and directed by Magi. Nick Curnow is a well-dressed man of somewhat ambiguous sexuality, but who flirts with Lucy Goleby's standoffish secretary with black roots (in her hair). They share a private moment, comparing matching tattoos. Meanwhile, the Greek girl (Carla Nirella) keeps to herself, nose buried in a book, or at least pretending it's so. Up the back, the restless boy with the hoodie (Jay Duncan) fantasises and fetishises her and is clearly downcast when she disembarks. Perhaps it's the last time he'll see her, and he's passed-up his chance again. He takes consolation in his thoughts of how he felt uplifted when he first saw her. It all has the stamp of authenticity; palpable reality, and a more serious take on it. On this bus, the frailties and insecurities inbuilt to the human mechanism are laid bare; this is the uberape, at his and her most naked and vulnerable.
Mastadon Special is easy to identify with, too, but takes a more humourous approach. The dynamic duo of writer, Lenton, and director, O'Leary, again strut their superlative stuff, with Lib Campbell caught in the middle of crossfire conversation, as the demure iPod girl who craves nothing but privacy and peace, until such time as she reaches her destination and can exhale once more. Around her, Dave (the arselicker, or kicker, depending who's version of events one prefers), played by the charismatic Patrick Magee, Suse (Emma Harris) and Janice (Sophie Haylen) vie for voluble domination, as they pointlessly reminisce and ruminate, squandering breath and needless, aimless words, while thoughtlessly invading the iPod-girl's precious, unassuming space. Familiar, no?
The Party is Noelle Janaczewska's equally ambitious but infinitely more successful, cohesive and coherent piece, focussing in on the painful, inescapable memories of a Russian woman, drowning in virtual vodka and her past; profusely apologetic as she brushes her copious shopping and, metaphorically, other baggage, up against the don't-want-to-know lives of fellow passengers, while she waits out the interminable passage of her lonely, isolated journey. This is sensitive and sensational work, with a standout performance from the versatile Cheryl Ward, expertly dialect-coached by Nick Curnow. Director, Magi, has collaborated wonderfully with writer and performer to extract every drop of pathos.
Baby Doll, by Jo Erskine, and directed by Ngaire O'Leary, draws on the vintage seasoning of Marrickville local, Philip Hinton, as Percy, and Maggie Blinco, as Nell. Seated adjacent, their fading minds and bodies are momentarily rescued by a nostalgic fantasia, in which they flirt and dance. It's tearily charming and exquisitely realised by these fine and finessed actors.
Story 2, by Freiman, directed by Magi, and featuring Tattooed Man, Jay Duncan, Young Woman, Carla Nirella, Storyteller, Matilda Ridgway and Man With Hearing-Aid, Will Snow. The action centres around the precocity of a child, asking his grandma the most difficult and embarrassing questions his devious young mind can conjure. 'Why is that man wearing a hearing-aid?' 'Do tattoos make you strong?' again, who hasn't been there. Yet it might so easily have been also-ran, were it not for the awareness, alertness & careful documentation wrought here, which make it a distinguished piece of theatre indeed.
Clean Skin is reliant upon the utterly compelling solo riff of Matt Charleston, who succeeds commensurately, in playing a twitching, posturing passenger, inhabiting the opposite end of the age spectrum. We've all glimpsed this young man: notorious, streetwise, tough; at least in his own mind. He has the baseball cap, the atrocious synthetic sportsgear, the boxer's demeanour, the speadeagled, assertive posture. And a tale to tell: of football, punchups and the biffo of everyday existence. Someone hand him a Helpmann, or something. And, behind the scenes, Edgerton & Fischer have come up with the goods again, also.
Olympia and Phuong is tender and terrific. Familiarity has bred recognition, respect and understanding, if not actual interaction, between ethnographically divergent women of a certain age, travelling remarkably similar roads together, but apart. These women, too, indulge in wild, exotic imaginings; hopes for escape from their ossified routines pinned on young men, on the same route but different paths. Written by Abela, directed by Scott Selkirk, and performed, illustriously, by Josipa Draisma and Alice Keohavong.
No Rides Left is possibly the most side-splitting of all. Written by Marlow (Jasper, not Christopher) and directed by the ever-reliable Fischer, a young woman, Davida, played by Lib Campbell, is cornered by heavy-hitters from the STA, who catch her in the act of travelling without a valid ticket. Mark Dessaix plays the lead inspector, who probably pines for the good, old days, of capital punishment for first offenders. Luke Carson is the soft deputy, who couldn't find the grit to wrangle Mabel, who forgot her pension pass. Davida is harangues, harassed and, finally, broken, whereupon she unfurls her trenchcoat, to reveal herself as a suicide-bomber. If you've ever had the temerity to ride the crest of a cheap-thrill wave, in not bothering to put your hard-earned coin in the relevant slot, you might well-knows the unremitting vengeance of the all-powerful authorities, who, in the absence of the former popularity of hanging, drawing and quartering, are not above its psychosocial counterpart, of public humiliation.
Finally, The 428 Song, with lyrics by Tahli Corin & music by Rosie Chase, sees publicly-transported troubadour, Toby Villis, lift his guitar, and our yearning hearts, to serenade a hapless fellow-traveller, inviting her to take a walk down the aisle with him. Sweet. And funny.
Already, Stories From The 428 is shaping-up as a cult phenomenon. Audiences have been overflowing; generous with applause, laughter and, where appropriate, mesmerised silence. If you're quick you still have a chance to be in the rarefied position of being able to say, years from now, 'I was there, in the beginning'; just as Stories embarks on its umpteenth season, in the year 2525.
Stories from the 428
4 Directors, 2 Weeks, 8 Writers
Venue: Sidetrack Theatre | 142 Addison Road, Marrickville, NSW
Dates: Week One: 8pm Wednesday – Saturday, 24, 25, 26, 27 March & 5pm Sunday 28 March
Week Two: 8pm Wednesday – Saturday, 31 March, 1, 2, 3 April & 5pm Sunday 4 April
Tickets: $25 full, $20 concession