By Judith Prior
When scientists wish to know more about the health of a stretch of waterway they are often just as interested in the strength and numbers of the smaller fish in the backwater as they are in the bigger fish that cruise the main stream. If we apply this analogy to Brisbane theatre it is very clear that, regardless of how the mainstream theatre companies are faring, local community theatre is thriving out in the suburbs.
On any given night of the year there will be a theatre group somewhere in Brisbane planning, rehearsing or performing a play for family, friends, neighbours, and fellow enthusiasts. Whatever the competition from larger better-known companies, seats are sold, halls are filled and ambitions are realised.
Centenary Theatre Group has been operating in this way in the western suburbs for more than 30 years now; an indication of a commitment to offering amateur actors an opportunity to follow their love of performing, and to offering local audiences the opportunity to see a wide range of plays.
Recent offerings of this group have included dramas such as Ring Round the Moon, Harp in the South and Shadowlands, but they have tackled a wide range of comedies too, from Dimboola to Victorian melodrama. Their latest offering is a foray into the theatre-restaurant genre and undoubtedly on the lighter end of the scale.
Judith Prior’s piece lays no claims to depth or subtlety – it is described in the publicity as “a rollicking romp of unlikely proportions set on the high seas on the way to Australia” – so no-one need expect sophistication. There are two main scenes, one set in a court of law as various felons are sentenced to transportation, and the other on board the transport ship, with the Judge turned Captain and the convicts as crew. The text is larded with songs (audience participation compulsory), limericks, slapstick and one-line jokes.
All of which seems much funnier than it deserves when one has eaten a delicious dinner washed down by a little wine. The ‘restaurant’ side of this theatre-restaurant experience was a huge success and the group is to be congratulated on excellent catering and superb organisation – something not always achieved by every group who attempts it. All of which contributed to an atmosphere of warmth and conviviality, giving the actors every chance to relax and enjoy themselves.
In a relatively large cast (four men and seven women) there is bound to be some unevenness in performance. As is often the case with untrained voices there were some problems of audibility, caused sometimes by lack of volume but more often by limited breath control and projection. Some, like Michael Lawrence as Judge and Captain, Aaron Marshall as Clerk and Bosun and Pam Alick as Lavinia, demonstrated plenty of vocal energy but needed more help with pace and attack to make the most of their comic impact. All contributed to the fun of the evening but particularly noteworthy was the comic duo of William McCreery Rye as Toby and Alexandra Davison as his side-kick Ben. These two actors played off each other and were constantly working to inhabit their characters and further the action whether they had lines or not. Without attempting to dominate the stage, they nevertheless engaged the audience’s attention by their confidence and commitment.
Clearly the cast enjoyed themselves and the director was proud of what she and they had achieved. Sue Watson and her team devised a very attractive set, the costumes looked good, the music contributed to the atmosphere and the audience was delighted and appreciative. This is, of course, what amateur theatre is all about. While actors line up to perform and audiences keep coming back for more (as they have for 30 years for the Centenary Players) something must be working. Coming up next for this group is Crèche and Burn by Elise Greig, then a world premiere of a play by Brisbane writer Paul Sherman. It looks as if this particular backwater is brimming with activity and life.
Directed by Norma Braddock
Final performance 29 July 2007
Running time (including meal and intervals) 3 hours