Left - Garry McDonald, Robert Grubb and Frankie J. Holden. Darren Gilshenan, Tracy Mann, Georgia Flood, Garry McDonald. Photos - Jeff Busby
In the early 1970’s David Williamson wrote a play called Don’s Party. It was set on election night 1969, when a group of twenty-something year old friends came together at Don’s place to watch the election unfold on television. Predictably, with alcohol at hand, and more than one sex hungry male among them, the outcome of the election was not the only thing on their minds.
Some forty years down the track, in Don Parties On, the gang again meet at Don’s place, this time on election night 2010. At a time when the difference between the stances of the two main political parties is becoming more difficult to define, for this group, like many Australians, the election is treated more as a spectator sport than a moment that will determine any significant political or social change. This is instead an evening spent reminiscing about the old days, blaming each other for the way their lives have turned out, and insulting each other with direct references to the size of their penises.
As the opening work of the MTC’s 2011 season, Don Parties On is a safe choice. Like most of Williamson’s plays, it appeals to middle-class Australians, apparently showing them extreme versions of themselves, or more conveniently, people they know. Even more than that, it is bathed in enough inoffensive humour for the audience to forget, for the most part, that what they are watching merely skims the surface of the issues that should be, and deserve to be, thought about in some depth.
It is not often however that a work boasts such a well-known cast and the leads deliver as one would expect. Director Robyn Nevin has brought out the best in most of the cast, finding the humour in both well-timed slapstick and the more subtle glances or movements of the individual.
Don (Garry McDonald) is a retired school counsellor and would-be writer who finds himself in a bit of hot water having written an apparently fictional novel about characters with unflattering similarities to his wife [the practical, maternal and largely overlooked Kath (Tracy Mann)} and their friends. Those friends include: Mal (Robert Grubb), a lonely divorcee with a penchant for red wine that he can’t afford; Cooley (Frankie J Holden), a wealthy, image conscious larrikin attached to an oxygen tank; his wife, the beautiful and society conscious Helen (Diane Craig); and Mal’s ex-wife Jenny (Sue Jones), a woman who has always spoken her mind and as a consequence has been ostracised from the rest of the group for the last forty years.
Dale Ferguson has created yet another impressive set and Nevin has the performers utilise their surroundings to great effect. Located in the leafy suburb of Lower Plenty, Don and Kath’s house is warm and inviting. The split-level, open plan house is apparently the same house at which the gang met all those years ago. The old brown microwave and oven are still there, but there are also abstract paintings, flat screen televisions and I-pod docks. It is an instantly recognisable setting, and, rather intriguingly, it is a space that provides comfort and familiarity for its audience as much as the characters within the play.
Don Parties On raises some interesting issues – the political situation of the time versus that of the past, lost love, varying degrees and forms of passion, and the definition of success and failure as parents and individuals. Yet many of the moments of wisdom and truth become lost amongst the play’s preoccupation with sex and surrounding action. Perhaps this failure to explore such themes or acknowledge these moments is one of Williamson’s observations of society, but it is a great shame for the audience and the play as a whole that they are not given the space or attention they require to be fully considered, or to have the dramatic effect they deserve.
Most baffling is the character of Richard (Darren Gilshenan), Don and Kath’s forty something year old son. Richard is father to teenaged Belle, maturely played by Georgia Flood, and has left his wife for a much younger woman. Richard is a gross vehicle through which to demonstrate that Don and Kath’s family is not as perfect as it seems. He is pathetic and petulant, but the real problem is that there is nothing likeable, humorous, nor believable about this character and Gilshenan’s performance of him is frankly uncomfortable to watch. The character of Richard’s girlfriend Roberta (Nikki Shiels) is equally excessive and unnecessary.
One of the primary reasons behind Williamson’s creation of this play was to re-visit the characters of forty years ago and in doing so it must now, to some extent, reflect the thoughts and reminiscence of many of the MTC’s current audience. It seems a waste, and a cop out, to not explore any of the emotions or intellectual pursuits that have got the characters to their various states of discontent and regret. Don Parties On will undoubtedly draw big crowds, and in many respects it deserves to. Yet it is difficult not to add it to the list of expensive plays produced by the MTC that lack real substance, and that surely underestimate the intelligence of its audience.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Don Parties On
by David Williamson
Director Robyn Nevin
Venue: the Arts Centre, Playhouse | 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne
Dates: 8 January to 12 February, 2011
Times: Mon - Tues @ 6.30pm, Wed @ 8pm & 1pm, Thurs - Fri @ 8pm, Sat @ 4pm & 8.30pm
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | http://theartscentre.com.au