Boundary Street, presented as part of the 2012 Brisbane Festival by Black Swan State Theatre Company, makes a good attempt to run the full gamut of live performance tricks. There is dancing and singing, a live jazz band, period costumes, a moving set, audience seated on the stage, quotes from politicians, spoken poetry and historical video footage. With all this, the show runs the risk of being all flash and no fire. Happily, Boundary Street makes good use of this pastiche of theatrical elements in delicately dissecting a less than proud time in Brisbane's history with pleasingly little tackiness. Boundary Street asks the audience to take a step back into this past, and it does so with such tenderness and generosity that they can't help but comply.
Both a war story and a love story, Boundary Street is most importantly a true story, which examines one of the conveniently overlooked facets of Brisbane's involvement in the Second World War, when the city became a temporary home for American soldiers. As race segregation became a hot issue and the city was sectioned off using the river as its "whites only" line in the sand, tempers flared and eventually violence raged. Boundary Street takes the audience into the world of a 'black' jazz club, set up in the West End to give coloured servicemen a place to go at night, and waitressed by white women who were there to serve drinks, talk and dance with the men. The truth to the historical aspects of Boundary Street may take many by surprise as it delves into a not-so-pretty past for Brisbane and Australia. Thankfully, it tactfully avoids the Underbelly route and avoids over glamourising or romanticising these events.
Beside it's historical setting, Boundary Street feels like a show made decades ago, in the best possible way. Not latching onto the need to move at today's breakneck speed, the plot lingers on tender moments and explores the intricacies of relationships between the two nations on both a personal and political level. While the set is large, with the band placed atop a moving stage and overshadowed by a replica Story Bridge, the colours are muted and the movements are slow and quiet, so the stage in no way distracts us from the performance.
The cast of Boundary Street seem to have grown together and connected strongly, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in the show fully. While all the performances were solid, there were times when the script fell upon its own Australian/American slang jokes and despite great acting, stereotypes were hard to break away from. In a play examining racial boundaries and attitudes, it was hard to tell if this might have been deftly deliberate, or just a hint of lack of development.
One of the highlights of the show is, of course, James Morrison's musical score and performance. Morrison and his band played nearly non-stop throughout the show and were nothing less than masterful. For fans of jazz, or music in general, it would be worth seeing Boundary Street purely for the two hours of musical performance. The swing dancing performed by the cast as they dallied around the nightclub was also very fun to watch, and judging by the amount of audience toe-tapping that occurred, may even spark a few memberships at local dance schools.
Boundary Street doesn't feel like cutting edge, modern theatre; there are no lasers, no nudity and a very rigid and measured plotline. The relief of this slower mode is what makes it enjoyable to watch. Boundary Street tells an important story with reverence and respect, and has a little fun along the way.
Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
by Reg Cribb, music by James Morrison
Venue: Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre, 119 Lamington Street, New Farm
Dates: 12 - 15 September, 2012