Dr Ox: The Experiment

The Theatre, Morningside Campus of Southbank TAFE (Villanova Players)


Adapted by Rod Thompson from a short story by Jules Verne

Amateur production

Unless we have friends or relatives intimately involved in a performance, or enjoy going out in a group, or think that any live theatre is better than none, most of us steer well clear of amateur theatre.

As a reviewer of 25 years’ experience, I’ve spent some of the worst nights of my life sitting through two hours or more of bad acting, sets that fall down, draughty halls and backache-inducing chairs, probably being the only one in the audience wondering how soon it will be over, and whether I can possibly sneak away at interval. (I very rarely do, I promise, unless it’s too bad to endure, or if I know the play and have seen enough to know that there are going to be tears before bedtime – chiefly mine.)

Occasionally, however, dedication and patience are rewarded, which is why I keep on going to amateur theatre – not as often as I should, I suppose, but everyone deserves a few nights at home in front of the telly, even jaded reviewers.

I had one such night last week when I went, with my usual low expectations, to see Villanova’s latest production, a new play by local hero Rod Thompson based on a short story by Jules Verne called Dr Ox: The Experiment. It’s set in 1873 in a mythical Flemish village called Quiquendone, a peaceful community where “there hasn’t been the shadow of a disagreement for a century; where the cab drivers don’t swear, the dogs don’t bark, the cats don’t scratch. A town where the police-court has nothing to do from one year’s end to the next; where crime is as good as a myth, and where not an indictment has been drawn up for one hundred years. A town, in short, where for three centuries nobody has struck a blow in anger!”, to quote either the playwright or Jules Verne – the program notes don’t make it quite clear.

But along comes Dr Ox (played with real success by Suresh Poonavaala), a scientist who decides to change the town completely by the introduction of excess quantities of oxygen into the air. The character smacks of Dr Frankenstein, in that his experiment gets out of hand, and the whole tenor of the village is disrupted as the inhabitants are totally changed by his experiment. Suddenly tempers become frayed, women demand independence (apparently Thompson’s wife Maria Plumb, who directs the play, insisted on adding a feminist dimension to Jules Verne’s original all-male plot), love affairs take on a life of their own, and old friends fall out over trivial matters. They even go to war against a neighbouring village, Oudenarde, with whom they have hitherto co-existed peaceably.

The fun in the play is the changes in people’s temperament and the way the final disaster, brought about by Dr Ox’s assistant Ygene (work out for yourself the bad French pun on their names before the narrator tells you), actually turns the clock back so that all is almost as it used to be, but the pleasure is compounded by the narrator, Jules Verne himself, who hurries the script and the actors along, constantly interrupting them and explaining to the audience what’s going to happen. Why Brett Heath didn’t want his name on the program as the Jules Verne character I can’t imagine, because he is quite wonderful, hamming up the role so skilfully that he almost convinces us that the very amateur performances of the other actors are only this stilted because they are his puppets. It’s a clever theatrical conceit, which can only work in the hands of a master actor whom, in the case of Brett Heath, the director has.

The text abounds with unforced literary references, some I suspect from the original Jules Verne story ( The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and certainly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are there), but the adaptation itself, knowingly or not, has more than a touch of Dad’s Army and even Aristophanes’ Lysistrata , a play from ancient Greece where the women withhold their sexual favours until their men refrain from going to war.

I’m not pretending this is a brilliant production, for the cast is mostly made up of amateurs whose enthusiasm far outweighs their abilities, but Brett Heath’s performance alone is worth the $16 admission fee.

But I loved the costumes. Never has fabric stiffening been put to such creative use as in making the white Dutch-doll bonnets, and what Leo Bradley achieves with baubles and trimmings from Spotlight’s haberdashery section can only be called a triumph, even if the bright green pompoms stuck on Michael Byrnes’ 21st century black lace-ups are a big mistake.

But most of all it’s exciting, for me at least, to see a local play that has intelligence, wit and an imaginative structure, and I mean no disrespect to cast and crew if I say that it deserves a much better production than this. If I were Rod Thompson, I’d send the script to Playlab, or even to the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference, because with a bit of help from a professional dramaturg and a professional reading, it could develop into something very good indeed.

Directed by Maria Plumb

Playing until 23 September – Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7.30pm, matinees Sundays 10 and 17 September at 1.30pm

Duration : 2 hours, including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 8th September 2006)