We Were Dancing

(Queensland Theatre Company)


Singers should be able to act. Should actors be able to sing?

Three of Noel Coward’s short plays written in 1935 as part of a series of 10 playlets under the title “Tonight at 8.30” form the basis of this mixed evening, with members of the company augmented by guest stars Dennis Olsen and Amanda Muggleton.

First of the plays, “We Were Dancing”, is best a crisp evocation of the lives of decadent expatriates in a tropical outpost. It starts wonderfully, with Robert Kemp’s set magically morphing into view: a glittering star-lit ocean framed by palms and a colonial veranda, from which our pensive characters dither about while exploring their inconsequential dilemmas.

Mark Conaghan and Kellie Lazarus appear briefly as an energetically naughty couple, paving the way for Melinda Butel and Jean-Marc Russ as newly-in-love Louise and Karl. The dreamy couple’s prolonged snoggery is interrupted by the elderly Hubert Charteris (Dennis Olsen) and his sister Clara (Amanda Muggleton), whose disapproval of their amorous display is understandable when we discover the marital relationship between Hubert and Louise. All sorts of teddibly British pukka behaviour ensues, as well as delightful references to Orstraylia, and the drama sorts itself out in a proper way. The cast is rounded off with a jolly good Joss McWilliam as Major Blake and a versatile Niki-J Witt as the maid, who manages an heroic extended hibernation with no apparent ill-effects.

Olsen and Muggleton reappear smartly in “Red Peppers” as a vaudeville couple whom we see on-stage doing awful routines and off-stage bickering with each other and company staff, including Conaghan as their drunken conductor. In the Coward repertoire it’s a famous and entertaining sketch, which the cast bring off well, with wonderful interplay with the orchestra through to the dizzyingly uproarious finale.

“Shadow Play” is the least-known of the triple-bill, and deservedly so. It is a labored tale of misfit upper-class types who turn to the bottle, pills and affairs to get through their lives. Some clever stage effects evoke dreams and flash-backs but these fail to save a rather tedious text and worse songs. (It would have been better if director Michael Gow had chosen another of the original “Tonight at 8.30” plays for example, “Still Life”, later to be developed into the brilliant film “Brief Encounter”.)

For the production as a whole the imported talent is very good, but to my mind the outstanding actor is local lad Jean-Marc Russ, who captures his upper-class English twit characters very well. He is as delightful cheerily informing Hubert that he is in love with Hubert’s wife (whom he has known only a few minutes), as in his squeamish reaction to his beloved’s sandwich-chewing habits. It is no surprise when their love vanishes more quickly than the dawn (another spellbinding effect from lighting designer Matt Scott).

The music ensemble led by Helen Russell sounds great well-controlled and professional, with a good dynamic. At times it drowns out the singers, which in the circumstances is no bad thing.

There is good reason for the guiding principle in musical theatre that you cast first for vocal ability and then for acting skills. The best one can say about the singing in this show is that it is of “fair average quality”, which is not quite what we expect from professional theatre. (The company is of course continuing a tradition established by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, whose singing skills lagged rather behind their acting ability.) The performers have obviously worked very hard at their intonation and they generally get this right. But there is little vocal timbre or warmth from any of them, and they tend to decline in confidence as the night wears on. To make things worse they are miked. The singers are not helped by their material: Coward’s songs in this show range from the average to the awful.

Another problem with the production is that most of the actresses fall short of achieving the appropriate upperclass Englishwoman accents. Melinda Butel for example has no problem with the vowels, but generally her intonation isn’t right (too flat, too low) and few of the women capture the slightly tipsy sound of the English memsahib. The accent problem may contribute to Butel’s not really succeeding in capturing the characterisations. Even Muggleton seems too strident in play number 1, and it is fortunate that “Red Peppers” allows her to show her command of a feisty character role. The men are better at sounding the part, especially Olsen and Russ.

Ultimately I couldn’t help wondering whether on the basis of this sort of material Coward deserves to survive into the 21st century. Most of his supposed wit is lame and dated. People talking up the production have been comparing him with Oscar Wilde, which is grotesque.

It would be nice if we could infer some lesson about the vacuous, empty, useless lives of his amoral and self-obsessed characters, but Coward seems to admire rather than decry his subjects. He was of course writing about a class he was desperately anxious to belong to.

Finally, the opening night audience succeeded in being in character in 1930s dress, but some should be told that mobile phones are very un-1930s. Perhaps QPAC should invest in some jamming technology.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Wed 9th July 2003)