By Vivienne Cleven
Be warned! Bitin’ Back contains coarse language, drug references, violence, strobe lighting, flashes and bangs and pops, and cross-dressing lamingtons.
Wait a minute! Cross-dressing lamingtons? Well, not quite the program notes do have a comma between the two nouns. But there might as well have been, because this raucous, cheeky, totally captivating play has got everything else in it that you can imagine, and if you leave out Hayden Spencer’s builder’s crack, it must be the most maniacally funny show that Kooemba Jdarra have ever done.
Mavis (played with understated brilliance by Roxanne McDonald) is one of those mothers who seem to be put-upon but who, like many single Murri women, rule the family with an iron fist. In the small country town where white and black rub along pretty well, the real conflicts are over footy, with two mothers, Mavis and the peroxided Dorothy, at loggerheads over whose son is going to be chosen to for a big representative team. “Football’s your way out of this town,” Mavis tells her son Nevil, who for some reason wants to give up his promising on-field career.
It’s when the reason is revealed that the play really gets going, for Nevil has discovered cross-dressing and Jean Rhys (the Creole/Welsh author of The Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel about the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre). He wants to be a writer, go to Sydney and join the gay scene, but this, of course, is unthinkable in a small country town, and Mavis is determined to keep his new identity hidden, for her own sake as well as his.
Her solution is to get Uncle Booty (Lafe Charlton in deliciously laconic mode) to straighten him out, which he does by taking him pig-shooting as you do. Problem is, as Uncle Booty explains, “the boy came out and the pigs ran away”.
There’s more to that phrase than its superficial meaning. Vivienne Cleven’s script, from her own acclaimed novel of the same name, is double-tongued, and the rapier thrusts hit home with almost every sentence, even though the dialogue is unforced and totally naturalistic.
Director Wesley Enoch gets the tome just right, dealing with the serious issues that the play addresses peripherally by allowing the whole thing to be played as farce, almost like a Classic Comics version of a serious examination of small-town politics. The truth is there, and we’re never allowed to forget it `”Just be thankful you’re not a blackfella, or you’d be crawling out of here,” says Mavis as one of the white lowlife is dragged out of her kitchen after a particularly vicious white-on-white attack by Detective Lyle Gould (Hayden Spencer at his most revolting best).
It’s true, but you can’t helping laughing, for the characters are as funny as the caricatures in Dad’s Army or in any of Max Gillies’s send-ups. And the cast is spectacularly and universally wonderful good, from the shrill Andrea Moore and Paula Nazarski; to Mark Conaghan as Trev, who has come to help Nev `release his inner creativity’; to Scott Witt as the country cop with shorter-than-shorts and a pot belly as well as the ubiquitous Mrs Warby with her cocaine-laced lamingtons. (Don’t ask.)
Jorde Lenoy as the dumb ox Nev makes an impressive first professional appearance, and seems set to go far I hope we see a lot more of him, just as I hope to see more plays like this, which help the cause of reconciliation in a different way, by showing, without resentment and with great humour, that in the great human fight for survival, we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin.
Blackfella or whitefella, rogue or do-gooder you’ve gotta love ’em, and Bitin’ Back deserves to achieve iconic status.
Directed by Wesley Enoch
Playing until Saturday 16 July 2005 at 7.30pm
Running time: 75 minutes, no interval