Last Drinks

(La Boite Theatre)


by Shaun Charles (adapted from the novel by Andrew McGahan)

The Roundhouse, Musk Avenue, Kelvin Grove

Professional production

If you go to Last Drinks seeking ultimate enlightenment about the dirty tricks of Brisbane’s hit-men and politicians that led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry, you’re going to be sadly disappointed.

And if you try to draw direct parallels between the characters in this play and the real-life characters of the time, ditto. Except, that is, for the disgusting Minister-for-Everything, played with gusto by Steve Tandy with his hair dyed, certainly the most colourful and possibly the most evil of the many corrupt politicians of the dark dying days of the National Party government in Queensland in the late 1980s.

The political background is certainly there, and the program notes provide musings by Errol O’Neill and John Orr to prove it, but the play is based on Andrew McMahan’s crime novel of the same name, which won him the Ned Kelly Award for best first crime novel in 2000. So it’s best to forget about playing Spot-the-Character and concentrate instead on who’s doing what, and with which, and to whom, because that’s a hard enough ask in itself.

The story involves a disgraced journalist George (played as a pathetic dumb ox by the usually-sparkling Peter Marshall), who is trying to find out who murdered his old but estranged best mate, Charlie the restaurateur (and if the name of a certain big-time restaurant guru in Brisbane just flashed through your mind, let it stop right there, for Charlie has already been done to death in the nastiest and most visually shocking way by who-knows-who?).

When the dastardly person’s identity is revealed at the end, it comes as something of an anti-climax, as we’ve been through a number of murders in the course of the action, and most of the suspects have already been killed, so there are no prizes for guessing, but it’s a rather cheap trick when the culprit turns out not to have appeared in the action heretofore.

Three of the cast – Peter Marshall as George, Steven Tandy as Marvin the corrupt politician and Damien Cassidy unrecognisable with a shaved head as the unfortunate Charlie – are free to concentrate on their single characters, but Chris Betts (2 roles) Chris Baz (3) and especially the unfortunate Helen Howard (4 ) have so much to do that it’s sometimes hard to tell which role they’re playing at which time.

Helen Howard as the Nun, Maybelline (girlfriend of George and many others), Louise (whose purpose in the narrative escapes me as I write) and the Stripper (and we’ve all heard about the sexy black undies which, you’ll be glad to hear, are not as obscene as the publicity would have us believe) has such a short period on stage as any of them that’s it’s impossible for her to establish believable characters, and we are left with sketchy caricatures, some of which are more successful than others.

Chris Betts is better as the ultimate villain than as the poncy public servant, which he rather too obviously models on Sir Humphrey without the dry wit, and at two days’ remove I can’t distinguished between any of Chris Baz’s three roles.

This may be, of course, because I found it hard to concentrate, for the lighting is so dark that it was often difficult to work out what was going on. David Walters shows his usual mastery with special effects, but it doesn’t work well in the unconfined area of the Roundhouse, any more than the extra space that the stage offers helps the audience to understand as well as see what’s going on. This is a play, I think, that would work better on a thrust stage or even as a fourth-wall space with all the actors facing the audience, as the darkness in the round hides their faces rather too well. Shadowy the play and its atmosphere are meant to be, I know, but that doesn’t help if the audience isn’t sure who is who at any particular time.

I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t make comparisons, but as a play Last Drinks seems to me to have confused its genres. There’s not enough about the Fitzgerald Inquiry to clarify many of the issues, especially to the younger people in La Boite’s audience who were only children at the time. And even for those of us who lived through it, the references don’t really illuminate the plot. And as a crime thriller, it’s a bit of a fizzer.

Ninety minutes was plenty for me, and in spite of the spectacular lighting effects at the end, Last Drinks ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Director and dramaturg Ian Lawson

Designer Bruce McKinven, lighting designer David Walters

Playing 17 August – 2 September 2006: Tuesday and Wednesday 6.30pm, Thursday – Saturday 8pm, matinee Saturday 2 September 2pm

Duration : 90 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 17th August 2006)