Don Parties On | Melbourne Theatre Company

Don Parties On | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft - Garry McDonald, Robert Grubb and Frankie J. Holden. Darren Gilshenan, Tracy Mann, Georgia Flood, Garry McDonald. Photos - Jeff Busby

Sometimes, when it comes to writing a review, one feels torn between judging a play purely on its own merits, and assessing it in the context in which it has come into being. David Williamson’s latest is one such play.

The context, of course, is that the play is a sequel, and a sequel to a bona fide classic at that. Unlike the culture of Hollywood movies which thrives on sequels, it is a rare thing in the theatre world outside of trilogies and cycles of plays produced closely together.

Sequels, by their very nature, invite comparison with their first installments, not only by a competitive appraisal of their relative qualities, but also through consideration of how they serve as continuations of an often beloved original. Particularly, as in this case, when it is a sequel written as much as four decades later, providing a new chapter in a book long thought closed, its story finite.

So what is there in Don Parties On to be particularly torn about? Well, simply put, viewed as a sequel it is an entertaining and delightfully unexpected look back into the lives of a group of characters we certainly never expected to see again, and a rare treat for those familiar with the deservedly adored original. But as a standalone piece of comedic drama purely in and of its own right, it is a very average play, and far from Williamson at his best.

And that is the dilemma, as it seems scarcely appropriate to view it “on its own terms”, because being a sequel is inescapably part of its very being. It is almost impossible to view it as anything other than the follow-up to Don’s Party, and perhaps that is as it should be. Nevertheless, context alone cannot excuse a work from its shortcomings, and this play is certainly not without them.

Although comprehensible, the story would hold very little resonance to anyone unfamiliar with the original, as much of the pleasure to be derived here is in providing us with the unusual opportunity to reconnect with these people 40 years after we last saw them. One level on which Williamson does very well is in mirroring the original play thematically but advancing the complexity and the stakes for his characters. While many of the original partygoers are absent, having drifted away or even died in the interim, several of the core group are intact, balanced out by a few new individuals who are, appropriately enough, their descendents.

Just as Don’s Party depicted a group of disillusioned and self-deluded couples on the cusp of their thirties yet already mourning their glory days, Don Parties On shows many of these same concerns both amplified and mollified by the passage of so much time. Some friendships have endured, as have some enmities, and passions both personal and political have maintained, waned or inverted.

These deeply flawed people are, as in their youths, more than a little obsessed with measuring their mild achievements and epic failures against each other, but with far more perspective borne of their ensuing lifetimes both bitter and sweet.

But what makes the play work as something more than just a senior citizen rehash of the same folly-fest is its intergenerational angle, which is in some respects the drama’s saving grace as well as potentially its biggest weakness. Williamson was evidently invested in including the title character’s son and granddaughter as an active presence in the play, a means of exploring three different generations and asking what kind of bad behaviour do parents unwittingly pass on to their children and beyond.

The problem is that what seemed essentially a subplot later balloons out to dominate the second act with a storyline which, while naturally important to Don and his wife Kath, is effectively irrelevant to the other characters outside the nuclear family, who become sidelined for a considerable chunk of the action.

Perhaps more problematic is that while this cross-generational family crisis has its dramatic merits and elicits a good number of laughs, its deliberately histrionic content unfortunately detracts rather heavily from most of the surrounding interpersonal dynamics, including pulling focus from some other rather significant parallel plotlines concerning characters from the original play, whose stories feel shortchanged by comparison. What should have been major shifts in how these old friends are relating to each other seem to happen practically offstage, or even during interval.

As a comedy, the play has plenty of great moments and a good dose of Williamson’s trademark wit, but a lot of one’s appreciation here will come down to taste. Whether you feel this is typical of the playwright or not, there is no escaping that a lot of what we see here is done in pretty broad strokes, and subtlety is evidently not a priority.

Although some nuances of characterisation and moments of genuine pathos creep in here and there, it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that all the men are portrayed as deflated windbags, all their women disappointed in these inadequate husbands and fathers, each generation and political affiliation conforms to their assigned stereotypes, and the political messages, such as they are, are only a hair away from didactic. Of course, as with Don’s first party, politics isn’t really what this play is about, at least not of the federal kind, which makes it a little surprising that what political discussion is fielded falls largely into the realm of the crushingly familiar.

But perhaps Williamson deserves a bit more credit on that point. One cannot help but wonder if the idea of a sequel to Don’s Party has occurred to him after each of the last few elections, because thematically there is certainly something especially appropriate in the choice of using the 2010 election night over, say, that of Kevvy Oh-Sevvy. At Don’s party of 1969 we left our no longer quite young characters naively surprised and crushed by Labour’s umpteenth loss, mirroring their disappointments in life so far and the gloomy fear of the forthcoming malaise. A companion piece set on the eve of the Howard’s long-awaited toppling would have involved a mood of triumphalism wholly out of keeping with the tenor of self-defeating melancholy inherent to these characters, unless perhaps through some degree of ironic retrospect.

Instead, and much more appropriately, we flash forward to 2010 and our no longer even middle-aged gang find themselves on the eve of an as yet undecided future. An unknown result teeters on a choice between two surprisingly indistinguishable sides, now seeming only a distant echo of what they once stood for, a binary which appears to have been short-circuited by a new generation who no longer want to play the same old game. In this uncertain mood those crushingly familiar political platitudes seem as tired as the aging pundits who mouth them, their varyingly strong or dwindled convictions seem out of step with a political scene that has moved beyond (or perhaps degenerated beneath) the kind of euphoric passions for radical change from their youth, of which they now can do little but romanticise.

Robyn Nevin
’s production is strong, with an excellent cast who often veer towards the broad, but still manage to portray the more tender moments without too much tonal whiplash. Frankie J. Holden in particular is a delight as Cooley, chewing the scenery in huge savouring mouthfuls, and Garry McDonald provides good ballast as the relatively level-headed Don.

Don Parties On
is not a great play, but it is a good one, and perhaps in its own way, a little bit special. It is a sequel inextricably tied to its original, and yet in saying that it is a creditable one. After all there are few plays in our canon for which being revisited in this manner seems not only worthy, but appropriate.

Rachel Healy & Associates presents
A Melbourne Theatre Company Production
by David Williamson

Venue: Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 17 February - 8 March 2011
Times: Mon - Sat 8pm; Matinees Wed 1pm & Sat 2pm
Bookings: Sydney Theatre | 02 9250 1999

Most read Sydney reviews

A View from the Bridge | Ensemble Theatre

A View From the Bridge is a masterclass in acting and direction, and a sensational revival of a...

City of Gold | Griffin Theatre Company

From its shockingly hilarious beginning to its shockingly powerful brick through a plate glass...

Schapelle, Schapelle | Piano Room Productions

This unapologetically irreverent musical, more in the vein of a spoof or even a roast, ridicules...

Rainbow’s End | Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Moogahlin Performing Arts

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow has been a long time coming for the First Nations...

Orava Quartet

The Bangalow Music Festival, jewel of the classical music calendar of the Northern Rivers of...

Sign up for our newsletter

* indicates required