By Katherine Thomson
Professional production – Christine Harris and HIT Productions
Is modern Australian theatre in such a parlous state that we need a touring production of Barmaids?
This play may have won the 1992 AWGIE Award (Australian Writers Guild), but it hasn’t worn well it was to the 1990s what Dimboola was to the 1970s, but I don’t think anyone trots that old chestnut out any more, except perhaps at drunken football nights or to raise money in small country towns.
I remember seeing Barmaids in 1990 and finding it very amusing, but that was a long time ago, I remember, and set down this, set down this… as St Tom Eliot might have said. Today, even though Valerie Bader from the original cast is still playing in it, and although Angela Punch McGregor has been replaced by the equally talented Genevieve Picot, I hated it so much that I did what I very rarely do I left at interval. And in case you think that was unfair and that I should have stuck it out, remember that I already knew what was going (or not going) to happen and that my friend, whose is a dedicated theatre-goer, was even more disappointed than I was.
It needn’t have been like this. The underlying theme, that even when women seem to be in charge of their own lives it’s their male superiors who eventually have the power, is one that still needs restating. The price of freedom is the same for women as it is for every other group of people eternal vigilance. These two ageing barmaids, Nancy (Bader) and Val (Picot), see the bar as their home and their territory, and think they have all their customers under control, whether through stern discipline (Val) or playing the tart (Nancy). But when it comes to the point, it’s the male boss who holds all the cards, for he uses the threat of dismissal to play them off against each other.
Female solidarity holds firm, of course, even in the face of such intimidation, but it’s 1987, and the odds are all stacked against them, especially as they find they can’t trust even the old drunks who prop up the bar (there are three delightful life-sized stuffed men-dolls who give Picot and Bader something to do instead of endlessly polishing glasses and striking poses which they do far too often anyway). Men’s loyalty proves non-existent once again all they’re interested in is what they can pour down their throats and a pretty face to supply it for them, and some sexual banter to compensate for their fading sexual abilities.
The men, of course, are all bastards, and with varying degrees of success try to treat the women like dirt, although there was general cheering when Nancy responds to one client who whistles for her to serve him, “Would you prefer me to bark, lick your face or just piss on your leg?”. But these moments of triumph were far too rare, for this kind of pub culture has virtually disappeared except, of course, in some country towns, which is the audience at which I suspect this production is aimed.
The play is basically two female heads talking to each other about their relationships with men (mostly failed), with the manager, with each other and with the clients, and the anecdotes and asides to the drunks at the bar are meant to give the play a depth that the script itself lacks. For whatever reason, though, it just doesn’t work. Nancy and Val remain as one-dimensional as the play itself, and both actors play their roles as if they were in a small-town amateur production. They don’t speak naturalistically, so that the lines come across as caricatures of Australian working-class speech, and they put on the most dreadful accents, as if they are posh people trying to slum it or, even worse, as if they’ve been watching too much Kath and Kim without, unfortunately, achieving that edge of authenticity that makes Jane Turner and Gina Reilly so successful.
Both actors seem tired, and perhaps, towards the end of a country-wide 13 week tour, they are. But try as I did to be generous in my reaction, I still felt as though they were condescending to the audience, putting on performances that weren’t up to their usual personal standard because this was only a country tour, after all, and it wasn’t so much boredom as feeling insulted that drove me away.
It was a real waste of an evening for me, I suspect for the cast, and probably for the audience, who were slow to warm to the play and then only because many of them had been partying beforehand. Some people enjoyed the clumsily-handled audience participation, for which the brave souls who put their hands up were rewarded with a glass of beer, but I don’t think this dated play is now suitable for anything except a theatre-restaurant style of performance.
The director must accept much of the blame for this tired old production. He should be keeping an eye on the cast, not letting them throw away their professionalism with such lacklustre performances. And I suspect that if the reviewers who praised the show at the beginning of its run were to see it now, they might eat their words. Certainly, as far as I’m concerned, it’s time to call “last drinks, please” for Barmaids.
Directed by Gary Down
Played Friday 15 until Sunday 17 July 2005 in Brisbane. Further performances at the Ipswich Civic Hall on Tuesday 19 July at 7.30pm, and at the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba on Wednesday 20 July at 8pm.
Running time: probably just under 2 hours, including a 20 minute interval (I can’t be exact, as I didn’t stay until the end)