By Matthew Ryan
Christmas comedies are the ultimate proof of the basic and unalterable truth about Life, the Universe and Everything as expressed by the ubiquitous Murphy – if anything can go wrong, it will, especially in Australian suburbia.
Matthew Ryan, who wowed this particular reviewer with his The Dance of Jeremiah at La Boite two years ago, is one of this country’s rising young playwrights, and such is his reputation that his current offering, Summer Wonderland, had its season extended even before the show opened.
You can see why, for it has all the ingredients for a pre-Christmas hit. It’s cast with loveable Aussie losers like Bob Jones (Stephen Tandy, who doubles as Mad King Ludwig), who’s lost his job, his wife and the respect of his son; the aforesaid son Foster (because he’s as Australian as …), played by the enchanting Leon Cain, who’s lost all his travel money because his down-and-out father is stealing it from him; high-flying business woman Marti (Louise Brehmer at her bitchy best) who has lost the promotion she was depending on; and sad little Eugene (the ever-versatile Scott Witt) who is about to lose his life as well as his potential happiness because Svetlana, the Russian mail-order bride he ordered (also played by Louise Brehmer), won’t go near him, and because a Russian mafia man (whom Witt also plays) is after him for $10,000.
It also has a very cunning set, made up of three dolls’ houses in a cul-de-sac, signifying the houses these losers live in. Clever Jonathon Oxlade! He gets around all the inherent difficulties of constant scene changes this way, as actors appear and disappear from the set behind their appropriate houses, and conduct all their business in the public space of the cul-de-sac. It also adds to the panto effect, suggesting that this is only a game anyway, and underlines (and often excuses) the cartoon characters and the often unbelievable plot.
The plot is that it’s coming up to Christmas, they are all desperate for a few thou in the bank, and a local radio station has announced a $100K prize for the best Christmas lights display. So the thinking caps go on and the neighbourhood knives come out, and there you have it – situation, plot, design and characters already set up before the action begins. All it needs is a licence for David Walters to play around with the lighting design, which he does to more than the best of his astonishing ability, and you have the potential for one of the funniest Christmas comedies in recent memory.
Why didn’t it work for me, then? Perhaps it was the over-playing by many of the cast; perhaps it was the extraneous character of the previous owner of this particular piece of suburbia, old Mrs What’s-her-name, played straight out of a Year Ten revue so that her role lost any relevance to the theme of lost values it may have had; perhaps it was that the play was just too busy, and tried to deal with too many issues at once.
Certainly the diction was poor and intelligibility limited in too many cases – only the older more experienced actors were able to manage the difficult acoustic of The Roundhouse space; and for a first night, too much latitude was allowed some of the younger actors so that they over-stepped that fine line between caricature and crassness. And it was far too long – the joke wasn’t good enough to sustain almost three hours, and playwright Matthew Ryan has tried to instil too much social and metaphysical significance into what would work much better as a simple comedy.
On the other hand, there were groups in the audience who thought it was just wonderful, and hooted and clapped all the way through. Friends-and-relations of the cast they may have been, but they loved it, and in defence of the show I have to say that it would work beautifully for a Christmas outing for a group of friends or colleagues, especially if they all had a few drinks under their belt.
But it’s not a family show nor, I suggest, suitable for people who like their brains to be taxed a little, because the script sits uneasily between pure mindless farce and D&M social comment.
Director: Ian Lawson
Designer: Jonathon Oxlade
Lighting: David Walters
Playing 11 – 27 October 2007 – Tue & Wed 6.30pm, Thu – Sat 8pm, matinees Wed 10, Tue 16 & 23 October 11am, Sat 27 October 2pm
Duration : 2 hours 45 minutes, with one interval