Left – Erica Lovell and Ian Stenlake. Cover – Ian Stenlake,Scott Irwin and Toby Francis. Photo – Noni Carroll
It’s exciting to witness a new Australian musical come to life. With the inimitable reputation that the Hayes Theatre Co has gained, together with a stunning cast and creative team, Truth, beauty and a picture of you (TBPY) should be a huge success. On face value, it is reasonably engaging and enjoyable, but the show is undeniably shallow. It lacks the most important qualities of a musical, and as such, falls short of audience expectation.
Jukebox musicals have become a pandemic of the proscenium, and shows like Mamma Mia!, Shout, and The Boy from Oz have garnered much success. The box office relies upon nostalgia, and a cleverly written book breathes new life into beloved tunes. TBPY certainly has a catchy score (music and lyrics by Tim Freedman) – but this was already proven when The Whitlams originally released the songs. Popular favourites are thoughtfully chosen, and function as musical numbers should. However, the narrative only flaccidly intertwines an otherwise fantastic score.
Fresh faced and straight out of school, Tom moves to the big smoke to search for answers from his dead father’s past. Of course, he gets more than he bargained for. Tom interrupts the slow decline of his father’s old band mates; helping vanquish the ghosts of the past, and assisting with the band’s return to the stage. It’s all a bit Jersey Boys. But, unlike Brickman and Elice’s engaging book, TBPY’s narrative is disappointingly dull and predictable.
Alex Broun’s book relies heavily upon cheese, cliché and cheap laughs. Admittedly, there are some witty moments, but it’s neither new nor exciting material. In fact, the plot is so insipid that it is sometimes necessary for actor’s to shout in order to convey tension and climax. Local references and the Sydney setting are a novelty, but are perhaps too restrictive to a wider audience.
As banal as it is, the narrative is simultaneously difficult to follow. Maybe it’s the poorly executed nonlinear plot, which initially presents itself as multiple unrelated storylines. Or maybe it’s the ambiguous era in which the story takes place: some elements like the pokies machine are antiquities, yet modern electronic gadgets are rife. Staging or lighting could have been better utilised to separate and convey these different times, spaces and storylines – but ultimately, the writing jeopardises continuity and consistency.
The characters are about as one dimensional as the plot, and receive little long-term development. While Beatrice (the only female character) initially appears strong minded and independent, she is plainly destined to fall for Tom. The motive behind Charlie’s suicide attempt isn’t clear, and even the death of Tom’s father is rather sensational. Anton is inexplicably despised and loved. And then, at the conclusion of the show, all conflict and disputes are healed with the cheerful Band-Aid of song. It is completely unrealistic, and just doesn’t make any sense.
While the narrative’s strength is questionable, TBPY works a whole lot better than that other Australian musical that recently opened at the Lyric Theatre. James Browne’s set surpasses all expectation of the confined space. The raised stage looms with an imposing, claustrophobic presence, but after the opening number, it unexpectedly retracts upstage. Throughout the show, this elevated platform rolls forward and back, as does a lower section that carries props and scenery. Action also takes place in smaller, surrounding alcoves. It’s a simply gorgeous use of the space.
Richard Neville’s lighting is similarly immersive, and while it does capture a variety of settings (particularly the grunge of a pub gig), it can sometimes be overwhelmingly blinding. Simon Koenig’s varied sound design redeemed the missed microphone cues and uneven levels. Subtle atmospheric effects were used well.
The cast itself was undeniably talented. What can be said of Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin? They are no strangers to the stage, and executed their roles with finesse. It is unfortunate that Irwin was smothered by his minimal role, and only really had an opportunity to explore the depth of his character in the final sequences.
The three young cast members equal the ability of their seniors. Erica Lovell is bold and intense as Beatrice, and despite a small fit of coughing, has a powerful voice. Toby Francis is the same, especially in his upper register. But it is Ross Chisari, in his performance as Tom, who should receive most acclaim. What Chisari could not exploit in his character, he did through song.
Truth, beauty and a picture of you could be a fantastic musical, but the merit of a new production is only proven after it has been given time to develop and evolve. As Alex Broun writes in the program notes, Tim Freedman’s “local and universal, timely and timeless” music belongs on the stage. But, in this incarnation, that is yet to be seen.
Neil Gooding Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co presents
Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You
Music and lyrics by Tim Freedman | book by Tim Freedman and Alex Broun
Directed by Neil Gooding
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co | 19 Greenknowe Ave Potts Point
Dates: May 9 – June 1, 2014
Times: Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Saturday at 2pm & 7.30pm & Sunday at 5pm
Tickets: $48 – $42
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au | 0498 960 586