Two Weeks with the Queen

(Harvest Rain Theatre Company)


Adapted by Mary Morris from the novel by Morris Gleitzman

Pro-am production

Childhood cancer is a frightening thing, and not just for the victims and their parents. What about the child’s siblings, who often don’t understand and probably can’t accept that a person their own age may be going to die? How does the brother or sister of a child with cancer cope not just with the illness, but with the parents’ distress and the changes in routine?

It’s a topic not often treated in literature, but when Morris Gleitzman wrote his book Two Weeks with the Queen about a typical Australian country kid called Colin whose little brother Luke suddenly develops cancer, it became an instant success.

Later Mary Morris adapted it for the stage, and ever since the play has been performed both professionally and by amateurs, for it is a touching but very funny script, and an effective way of communicating with the 10–14 age group about a problem that most of them won’t have to face, but which helps them to come to terms with death.

The point of view is that of Colin, tough and funny, who refuses to accept the verdict and is determined to find a way to cure his brother. He decides that Queen Elizabeth II must have the best doctor in the world, so resolves to contact her to borrow her private physician.

The way he goes about this is so naïve but so inventive that it almost makes your heart break to think of his inevitable disappointment, but Colin has lots of fun along the way, especially as his first stroke of luck is being sent to London to stay with his aunt, uncle and hypochondriac cousin, to be out of the way while his brother dies.

Ever the optimist, Colin finds his way to the gates of Buckingham Palace, is quite indignant when he’s not allowed in, and late one night takes his wimpish cousin and tries to climb over the fence. All hell breaks loose, and although from there the plot develops pretty much as one might expect, there are more characters to come, and deeper issues about acceptance of difference, and different ways of dying, that give the play a gravitas that it would otherwise lack.

This is a very important play, but whether the Harvest Rain version is a very important production is another matter. It’s been cast mainly from the younger group of HR players, and director Leigh Walker has given them their heads to do as they like.

I think this was not wise. These actors are too young and too inexperienced to hold back their performances, and they take some of the comic sequences to extreme, not realising that it’s more effective to underplay than overplay. Therefore the Qantas air-hostess (but why is she wearing Virgin Blue colours?), who wriggles her bum and struts around like a cat-walk caricature, loses all credibility; as does the appalling English family who makes Harry Potter’s Aunt and Uncle seem like a perfectly normal set of characters.

Although Josh McIntosh’s sets are very witty and the choreography is slick, the production doesn’t measure up as adult theatre. And there’s a question that should be asked – is it better that young people should see a good play sloppily done, so that they learn nothing about theatrical excellence; or not see it at all, thus missing out on some valuable ethical insights? Just a thought.

Directed by Leigh Walker

Playing until 23 September 2006 – Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 20 minutes, one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 6th September 2006)