48 Shades of Brown

(La Boite Theatre Company)


I noted in my last review that I had inadvertently been seated next to another reviewer. It looks like it’s going to be a recurring theme. As I took my seat for Friday’s performance of 48 Shades of Brown at La Boite, I noticed the row of people in front of me and others dotted around the theatre were all keenly holding notebooks and pens. They turned out to be first year Theatre Studies students from QUT, there to critique an actor’s performance. I thought about mentioning to them the problems associated with trying to write in the dark while watching a play, but the lights dimmed and we were away.

After the success last year of After January, La Boite has once again turned to the works of Brisbane author Nick Earls, and the result is this world premiere performance adapted for the stage by Philip Dean. The story of a sixteen-year-old boy’s rites of passage, 48 Shades of Brown is witty, charming and above all, very very funny.

The story goes something like this. Dan (Michael Dorman), 16, is living in a share house with his young aunt Jacq (Rebecca Murphy) while his parents are in Geneva. Jacq’s 23, at uni, plays bass for a garage band, and nothing like her sister, Dan’s mum. Also in the house is Naomi (Cara McIlveen), a nymph-like second year psychology student who becomes the object of Dan’s teenage lust. Throwing more wackiness into proceedings is Chris, Dan’s schoolmate for whom scoring a chick with a car is the ultimate fantasy, and Phil, the square landlord always popping round to fix or prune something (both Chris and Phil are played by Tony Brockman).

Life for Dan is not what life is like for most Year 12 boys. Thrust into a uni share house, he has to learn to wash, cook, clean and study even when Naomi is having sex in the room next door. He goes to lengths to try to win loser-in-love Naomi even memorising bird species and their particular shade of brown (hence the title). All the while he’s having fantasies of Danish girls and Clare Danes, which are played out for maximum effect.

The central performances are strong. Murphy as Jacq brings a tough, streetwise attitude to Jacq, making her the type of aunt I’d sure like to have. Brockman is superb in all three of his roles each is distinctly different and all were crowd favorites, the sign of a great character actor. Cara McIlveen was suitable as the lusted-after Naomi; however I felt the character was getting more and more stupid as the play went on. By the play’s end, I felt she was positively dumb, and wondered how she could be so admired. McIlveen’s other characters were all played well, especially the very drunk schoolgirl Imogen.

The real star though is Michael Dorman as Dan, who looked uncannily like a young Matt Damon. That could just be me. Dorman, as the main character, is onstage for 99 percent of the play, and he holds his role marvellously. Even his voice had the right amount of high and low in it, signifying his growth into manhood. The set was best arranged for La Boite, with Dan’s room the main set piece. Although this meant backs of heads, no comprehension was lost, and the in-the-round set-up was used efficiently. The play also had great pace, even though I felt some of the scene changes could have been slowed down a bit. The music used helped create a good feeling of time and place.

Often plays about “youth issues” deal with such themes as love, violence, drugs, alcohol, suicide, race, religion and death all weighty issues which theatre is correct in discussing. La Boite has indeed had its share of these topical plays X-Stacy and even its version of Romeo and Juliet. Worthy as they are, these plays have heavy subject matter, and deal with extremes. There rarely seem to be plays that deal with the (for want of a better word) “normal” side of growing up. 48 Shades of Brown fills this gap. As La Boite artistic director Sean Mee notes in the program, “These kids are OK”.

For me, this is what makes the play work. The audience really can identify with the character’s problems, and director Jean-Marc Russ has ensured it’s accessible to all. Now if only I was a Theatre Studies student, I’d have just completed my first assignment…

— Natalie Bochenski
(Performance seen: Thu 3rd May 2001)