It is unusual, I think, to hear about a play inspired by a statistic. It is not encouraging, either. Nonetheless, Bruce Hoogendoorn's play, The Clever Country, currently playing at The Street Theatre, takes as its theme Australia's falling science enrolments, and does so – perhaps surprisingly, considering its inspiration – with great humour and an intriguing plotline.
This tongue-in-cheek comedy introduces us to the Minister for Science, an MP new to the Cabinet who is keen to prove his worth by doing something about the country's falling science enrolments. With the help of his media adviser, Sarah, he engages a struggling researcher, Andrew, whose good looks offer the hope of breaking the stigma of scientific nerd-dom, and boosting science enrolments, making Australia the clever country. The plan, hinging as it does on Andrew's appearance and his motivation to attract more young people into science degrees, seems doomed when he is plonked in front of a young audience and proceeds to tell them how difficult science is. With some help from Fiona, a young woman whose talent for science is matched only by her desire not to be one, the media circus finally gets underway.
The cast, led by Brian Kavanagh as the handsome scientist chosen to save us from our intellectual doom, is excellent; but the star is definitely David Villanti, playing the portly and gregarious Minister for Science, supported admirably by Michelle Cooper in the role of Sarah. Also notable is Jaime Isfahani, as the brilliant young scientist who wants to be a fashion designer.
The entire cast does a magnificent job bringing to life a script that is most notable in its lack of subtext. The characters almost universally say precisely what they mean, which leaves them rather one-dimensional and demands a lot of the actors to maintain the play's energy. Despite their best efforts, though, these characters, completely transparent and lacking depth, don't do Hoogendoorn’s well-structured and engaging story justice.
Writing an issue play is a dangerous business. With the risk of every character turning into a preacher or a mere documenter at any moment, the playwright has a difficult task to keep them grounded in a persona. At the same time, there is the ever-present threat of the point getting lost in the business of diversifying these characters' viewpoints. Unfortunately, Hoogendoorn has not managed these challenges as well as one might hope. The lack of subtext and an unclear message leave the play desperately flat, and despite very strong performances and a hilarious and engaging story, it doesn't quite recover.
It is just as well, for this reason, that the situation is uproariously funny. However I might criticise these flaws, the humour builds and builds to a hilarious finish, making it a great night at the theatre.
The Clever Country is a clever play with a lot of unrealised potential.
Long Run Theatre Productions and The Street Theatre present
The Clever Country
by Bruce Hoogendoorn
Directed by Daniel McCusker
Venue: The Street Theatre
Dates: 6 – 16 October, 2010
Times: Wed - Sat, 7.30pm
Matinees: 9th & 16th at 2.00pm
Tickets: $15.00 - $25.00
Bookings: 6247 1223 or www.thestreet.org.au