Over the Top with Jim

(Villanova Players)


By Hugh Lunn

Amateur production

We are greeted at the entrance to the auditorium by people in big white aprons with Lunn’s Buns printed in red on them because, you see, Hugh Lunn’s dad always sent his leftover buns over to the convent which was the centre of the dangerous world of Annerley Junction.

Lunn’s Over the Top with Jim, which he adapted from his bestselling autobiography (with some script consultancy from Bille Brown), evokes a tight little Catholic world in Brisbane in the ’50s in which there are constant vicious skirmishes between the convent school boys and the state school kids; where the Lunn kitchen was re-floored with the cast-off lino from the Catholic presbytery; and where the threat of eternal damnation was ever present.

I have a friend, Brisbane-born but resident in Texas for many years, who was overcome with waves of nostalgia when he first read Lunn’s book, and he’s followed the later volumes of autobiography religiously (dare I say) ever since. It was a cosy, homespun world: the family dinner with Aunt Vera’s Honeymoon Tart (there’s even a picture and the recipe in the program – it seems to have been made mainly of condensed milk), camping with the school cadets, saying prayers to Who (“Who made the world?”), ghastly sisters (not the nuns) tap dancing, Mum checking bottoms for worms when you’re asleep, and the Queensland School Readers and a recitation of How Horatius Kept the Bridge.

During interval, by a deft bit of eavesdropping, I heard people swapping memories of a Catholic childhood and discovered that not only Hugh Lunn but also Archbishop Bathersby had attended the performance the week before. Apparently both were happy with it. Villanova has a loyal following, and this play is a wonderful piece of programming. It will probably be booked out for the whole of the run.

There are inevitable comparisons with Cloudstreet in the big family saga area, but without the pathos, and more particularly with The Christian Brother in the wonderful school scenes, once again, though, without the pathos. Indeed much of the material was so similar to Ron Blair’s school scenes that it reinforced just how uniform and strongly based Irish Catholic education was throughout Australia – up until fairly recently really.

The same admonition not to put AMDG at the top of the exam paper if you were doing a state exam (“what does that mean?” says Jim, the new Russian kid, “Auntie Mary’s dead goats,” sniggers Lunn), Brother Basher’s delight in the cane and his acceptance that some of his pupils might end up in England as Aussie con men, and the clumsy attempt to teach concepts which often the Brothers themselves might not have understood—such as ?r2, “Take a meat pie ……”

Villanova depends upon the enthusiasm not only of its regular audiences. It also relies heavily on the many volunteers who work behind the scenes and who supply props and expertise of various kinds. In this show the work of the volunteers was particularly important and resulted in a wonderfully authentic look, from the photographs which were back-projected before each scene to the old school desks and genuine ’50s clothes — a trumpeter in a gym slip, the pianist with a purple bow in her hair, and enough white gloves and sublime hats to satisfy everyone’s Auntie Mary. There was a lot of scene changing, seven or eight in each half, and for the most part it is handled efficiently. Perhaps the Ford car in which the family made the big trip to Melbourne involves the most elaborate bit of stage business, but it works after a fashion. “Just remember we’re not Catholic,” said Mum when they were held up by some town official/parking inspector (wearing a very strange hair piece for some reason).

The ensemble cast is particularly good in some well choreographed fight and sport scenes, and for the most part the principals are engaging, even if occasionally awkward in their command of the stage. I liked the personality of Robert Garnham’s Hughie, although he could work on his voice, which, though loud enough, needed better articulation. Jim (Ronan Lock) and Sister Vincent (Natalie Mean) are the most confident in their roles and have a stage presence lacking in some cast members. Ann Gaffney at the piano is superb.

I must confess to being mildly disconcerted seeing grown men in little boys’ shorts, and unfortunately the theatre was so small and the stage so close that the variety of skinny knobbly knees and hairy bulging thighs were at times a little too cosy for comfort. That said, however, there were some good songs and plenty of laughs, and as Sister Veronica said, “Every time you laugh, you get a holy soul out of Purgatory.” What more can I say?

Directed by Leo Bradley

Playing until 13 May. Friday-Saturday 21/22, 28-29 April; Thursday-Saturday 4-6, 11-13 May.

Duration: 2 hours 30 mins (including interval).

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Thu 27th April 2006)