Biloxi Blues

(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


By Neil Simon

Amateur production

The word “Biloxi” is unique and perhaps puzzling to native English speakers. It derives from a tribe of American Indians who were the first inhabitants of the coastal area where the town of Biloxi in Mississippi now stands. They were known as “biloxis”.

Last month, the thriving American coastal town of Biloxi was almost completely destroyed by hurricane Katrina. Prior to its destruction, Biloxi was a holiday resort boasting nine casinos, a lifestyle to match, and a certain notoriety because it hosted the first Mardi Gras. Today, however, there is practically nothing left.

But director Len Crook’s interpretation of famed playwright Neil Simon’s play confers life on the city again. This is a delightful and outstanding adaptation of the well-known play and movie and a nice tribute, intentional or not, for Biloxi Blues is a mix of comedy and calamity where hearts of gold are latticed across dollops of healthy hating and raw army dialogue. The characters in Len Crook’s adaptation are so well resolved that the audience laughed heartily throughout the evening.

A hit on Broadway, Neil Simon’s play was awarded best play of 1985. After writing nearly one play a year for 24 years, Neil Simon has become famous for his ability to engage an audience using simple language. Words like “vicissitude” are not acceptable! Director Len Crook obviously agrees, and has kept it simple and straightforward in terms of set design and costumes. Bunk beds, army standard lockers and a couple of chairs are the only objects on stage and nothing more is needed. And the greens worn by the six army trainees are cleverly and cleanly dressed and undressed, flagging scene and time changes which mitigate any drastic fine-tuning of the set.

The cherubic face of Richard Kerr (Eugene Morris Gerome) throws shafts of sunlight onto the stage and enchants the audience with a performance that is mesmerising and endearing. Richard, in his early twenties, shows great talent in his dual roles as narrator and performer. He was able to step away from the action, address the audience and then step lightly back to seamlessly dissolve into his other role while delivering the warmth expected of this character.

Richard plays a naive east coast American guy who along with five others is conscripted into the American army during World War II. Boot-camp is in the town of Biloxi. It’s hot, steamy and infested with mozzies, spiders and other pests, including strong-armed sergeant Mervin J. Toomey (Tim Jackman) whose jackboot training tactics are more intimidating than the creepy-crawlies.

Richard wants to be a writer and records his daily boot-camp memoirs in a notebook. The challenge, as outlined by a fellow boot-camper, is that he risks becoming a passive observer rather than being deeply involved with life. This is just one of the major themes, but it is delivered gently and with a dexterity and kindness which is rare in theatre today.

Tim Jackman as the abusive drill-sergeant is perfect for the role. He should give up his day job and stick to treading the boards! This is a difficult character to play with accents to master as well as lines and Tim brings an authenticity to the stage which means the audience has to pinch themselves to believe he is not the real thing.

Leon Moore is well cast as Private Joseph Wykowski. His height and stature are perfect for his role as the slightly racist and brutish yet team-spirited army recruit. After seeing him earlier in the year in Death of a Salesman, I believe that Leon’s on-stage confidence and ability to grow into his character, rather than force it, is evolving well.

Stuart Waters as Private Epstein begins as a dark, rather self-absorbed and tetchy character who surprisingly changes as the play progresses, his dark humour and dejected nature altering to swaggering mirth. This is a little incongruous and I would have preferred the dark, introverted truth-teller to remain faithful to his depressed character and deliver a necessary contrast and balance with Richard Kerr’s bounce. But overall the comedy flows easily and Gerome’s “first time” is tactfully engineered and hilarious.

But the real gift of the play is the magic trussing of performers who deliver a cohesive group of six whose physical and facial attributes shore up the imagination.

This Australian version of the second in Neil Simon’s trilogy, after Brighton Beach Memoirs and before Broadway Bound, is an absolute treat. Directed by Len Crook

Playing until 27 November (Thurs to Sat at 8pm, Sunday matinees 13 & 27 November at 2pm)

Duration: 2 hours, with a 20 minute interval

— Daphne Haneman
(Performance seen: Fri 4th November 2005)