The Road to the She-Devil’s Salon in the Bille Brown studio for QTC is a long, long road with too many meanders.
Sven Swenson’s prize-winning play in the Premier’s Drama Award begins with a breezy bit of nostalgia in the Turbot Street fruit and vegetable markets. I can vouch for the accuracy of their imaging because in 1952 reporting the markets (we called them the Roma Street markets) was my first job as a cub reporter for the Courier-Mail.
Mark Conaghan is spot-on in his fruit-spruiker, counter pointing the classy pomegranates (at “two a shilling”) against the humble Granny Smiths (“four pence a bag”).
Fine ensemble acting by the mostly youthful cast, working with sensitive director Scott Witt on an ingeniously naturalistic set designed by Alison Ross, creates a believable image of our workaday past, extending over six decades to the present.
Less convincing, despite dedicated and skilled acting, is the sometimes overworked “family saga”, especially where it attempts to make believable the rifle-thrusting brutality of a father who threatens his two daughters, one of them pregnant. Despite valiant work by Peter Marshall as the twisted father and Sue Dwyer and Queenie van der Zandt as the “syphillis sisters”, this ligament of the plot over-stretches to melodrama, working against the realism of the play’s racy framing.
Though much of the dialogue is tangy and truthful, it is excessively seedcaked with authentic local references. Some of these are relevant but others seem forced to give an illusion of topicality (possibly related to expectations of what was wanted for the Premier’s Prize). For me the most bizarre was the dragging in of the demolition of Cloudland. Even the character concerned said, “How on earth did we get on to Cloudland? We were talking about the market.” And do we need two jokes about “the smart State”?
Very sensitive fraternal and parental bonds are evoked by Laurel Collins, Kellie Lazarus, Bryan Probets and Ron Kelly but the “relevance”-pursuing stretching of the storyline strains credulity at times.
For instance the playwright has given one of the young characters a brilliantly written long monologue describing the horrific fatal fall of a child. Mark Conaghan handles this speech superbly, but for me the problem is that the speech seems inserted to point to the “topical theme” of “Mental Health” (a big tick for Issues-Based Drama). This character’s problem is allegedly relevant to his “full frontal nudity” scene. I doubted if anyone in the capacity second night audience was offended by it. I wasn’t, for one, but I found it a gratuitous insertion.
There is so much perceptiveness by this playwright, such a sharp ear realism of language, that one wishes he had used the scissors on what comes over as padding. For instance, the sermon on Heritage is needless because it is all implied in the generation-bridging plot.
How grateful I was in Act Two when the lengthy dialogue between the sisters was cut into by a return to the Fruit-and-Veg vending style that had kicked off Act One. And I wish that the bravura fruit-stall snappy style that closed the play had come a lot earlier, ending repeated speculation about a scuba-diving trip to Greece.
I am haunted by two contrasting images. One is the coarseness of Casual Worker Shane with his footy gear and foul mouth but it’s hard to believe his boss wouldn’t have sacked him light years before he got his blade-cutter to her private portions. The other unforgettable image is when the two sisters, in a beautifully balanced portrayal, recalled their night drives to the markets with their rotten father, the silences in their car seeming to them like a mongrel dog asleep on the seat.