ProdigalLeft - Anne Wood and Edward Grey. Cover - Adam Rennie and Edward Grey. Photos - Jeff Busby

Despite having some heart rending moments, when you consider its subject matter Prodigal is surprisingly tame. There are scenes crying out for real gravitas that come across like party scenes from a high school musical.

That said, there is a lot to like about Prodigal, as demonstrated by the rapturous reception it received from the opening night crowd sweating it out in the sultry fortyfivedownstairs space on Thursday night. Actress Anne Wood was the recipient of one of the longest mid-production applauses I’ve ever heard.

The premise is simple, based on the biblical Kane and Able story. Luke (Edward Grey), the proverbial son, graduates highschool and, amongst some familial angst, disappoints expectations to work in the family fishing business. Instead, he escapes to Sydney to enrol at university. (Predictably) he meets a liberal performance artist, Maddy (Christina O’Neill) and comes to realise that he’s gay and falls in love with the flamboyant Zach (Adam Rennie, who also plays Luke’s brother, Kane).

Luke’s typically Aussie father (Peter Hardy) doesn’t take the whole ‘my favourite son is gay’ thing at all well. And while his mother (Anne Wood) is more understanding, she’s far from accepting. As with every Kane and Able story, the prodigal son must at some point return; Luke’s Sydney sojourn comes to an end when he enters the drug-filled nightclub scene and his relationship with Zach and friendship with Maddy both disintegrate. His homecoming is not a pretty one, and though he nearly loses his life, he does eventually find acceptance within the bosom of his family.

The problem with a simple premise is that sometimes a production doesn’t stray far enough from this simplicity. There is so much more emotional ground that could have been covered to give the play and the characters more complexity. Still, it was written (in 2000) by two 21 year olds (Dean Bryant and Matthew Frank), and when you wrap your head around that fact, it’s a remarkable achievement. Prodigal was the first Australian musical produced in New York, has won numerous awards, and features quite a sophisticated score – not features typical of a debut effort. Still, writer/director Dean Bryant writes in the program of this latest production, “There’s so much in the show that only a 21 year old writing for the very first time would write…”, so even the creators are acknowledging a certain maturity is missing. Where this is most evident is in the scenes set in Sydney, where Luke’s demise into drugs is too contrived and not convincing enough. This isn’t helped by the very odd costume choice for Luke in these scenes, and the fact that Grey, despite a good performance, isn’t given enough to work with to offer enough light and shade to the role. Perhaps the most incongruous scene (and, again, this is likely a directorial rather than a scripting issue) is when Luke is assaulted shortly after his return home. This scene is the dramatic highpoint of the play and crying out to be a shocking, white-knuckle experience. Instead, it’s confusing, messy and bordering on the ridiculous. Fortunately, Wood is on hand immediately afterward to offer the gravitas so desperately needed.

Wood’s performance as Luke’s Mum is the glue holding this production together. Her comic timing is impeccable and her heart-wrenching solo, Love Them and Leave Them Alone, incredibly raw and honest. It’s a rousing tear-jerker, and the highlight of the night. Although somewhat overshadowed by Wood, the entire cast is strong. Grey and Rennie have beautiful voices and Rennie does an admirable job playing two very different roles. O’Neill, as the free-spirited Maddy, is delightful and has a sweet, pure voice. Hardy, in the role of the ocker father, is sublime. He is the epitome of the conservative, homophobic Australian male who, at his core, just wants to be loved by his family. It’s just a shame that his singing is not as strong as his remarkable acting talents. Actually, all of the cast desperately need to be miked, since the live piano frequently drowns out the singing. My advice is to get there early and sit close to the front.

Joanna Butler’s set design works extremely well in the space, although the water used in the assault scene is a glaring problem. The lighting design and video art bring in visual complexity, and the music is beautifully played by pianist and musical director Mark Jones. The score, while beautiful, is let down by the book. Grey’s struggle to reveal the depth of Luke’s experience is much more to do with this than any fault in his performance.

Despite some problems, then, Prodigal is well worth seeing. There are some classic lines, impeccably delivered, and I guarantee you’ll laugh and cry.

Midsumma 2011
by Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne
Dates: Jan 19 - 21; Jan 24 - 28, 2011
Times: Mon – Thu 7.30pm, Fri, 6.30pm
Tickets: Full $35; Concession $28
Bookings: 03 9662 9966 | http://www.fortyfivedownstairs

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