Fragments: A Season of Short Plays

Metro Arts Theatre (Backbone Youth Arts)

by Daniel Evans, Victoria Carless, Elizabeth Pullen, Kim Wilkinson

Backbone Youth Arts in association with Metro Arts and Playlab


Backbone Youth Arts (and I’m shamelessly plundering the program notes here) is an organisation for children and young people aged from 7 to 25 who are interested in drama and performance. In joining forces with a number of professional mentors working in various aspects of theatre from stage management and lighting and sound design to programming and directing, Backbone has made it possible for young artists to learn from the horses’ mouths about developing, refining and staging a new work. This is a bold and exciting enterprise without a doubt, and the resulting productions are an interesting blend of amateur enthusiasm and professional control. The short plays only had a two-week run, “Holy Guacamole” and “The Rainbow Dark” on one night and the shorter “Garnett’s Store” and “Nineteen Pages” on the following night, giving each program a total of four performances. Obviously wonderful experience for all concerned, including the two professional old stagers in “The Rainbow Dark,” and not too lengthy a season to exhaust the ready audience supply of family and friends.

The first night’s offerings were both clever ideas imaginatively worked through. “Holy Guacamole” began with an evocative medley of noises of modern suburban life—bells, horns, doorbells, plus the inescapable Brisbane summer cicadas. As the lights came up, we saw the Hills Hoist and the recognisable figures of a trio of Barbie dolls, the Sheena sisters. Suburbia rules. But there were also elements of misrule hovering round: the anarchic figure of granny in a wheelchair, full of caustic one-liners, who once flew and touched the clouds and only gave up flying when the bedpan kept getting detached from her bottom—“don’t get too attached to contortionists,” she advised, “one day they’ll lose their heads up their anus”; and the individualist friend who romped from one enthusiasm to another—from Allah to Krishna overnight—all the while practising her acrobatics; and finally there’s Mum who only wanted to be ordinary and bully downtrodden Dad, but who had inadvertently introduced the Lord of Misrule into their world by giving birth to Eustace the Avocado Boy, the freakish outsider who wanted to be a magician and be able to disappear at will. Green skin, strange shape, always gentle, puzzled by the world he doesn’t fit into, and ultimately the one who must suffer in this funny yet sad picture of suburbia. “When did grey become so fashionable?” laments Gran. The script is well written with some very funny lines, and the young actors use the quite small and crowded stage with energy and panache. Given the cartwheeling, the constant coming and going, the Hills Hoist and magic tricks, this is no mean feat.

“The Rainbow Dark,” the second half of the first program, is another quirky look at modern life, but this time dealing with a more directly current problem, that of asylum seekers and how ordinary people cope with “people from elsewhere who don’t recognise perfectly good borders.” The government has mandated that these people are squeezed into people’s houses (out of sight, out of mind), and Gloria and Babs, enthusiastically played by Jan Nary and Kaye Stevenson, have 26 (plus one newly born baby) living under their stairs. Each domestic habitation is now a miniature Nauru. Babs also has an “unsavoury” dog Sylvia who farts and scratches and sniffs crotches, and speaks the true wisdom of the play, that the people from elsewhere are still able to see colour in their enforced darkness. Sylvia, played by Dirk Hoult, is a shambling, shaggy, doggy delight. He and the timid Babs make a great couple, and their liberation of the people from elsewhere at the end is like the uplifting climax of all those Italian films of the 50s when the peasants always triumphed over their poverty. This is an interesting script: the setting of a suburban lounge room is a familiar one, and ultimately the play deals with a problem we all recognise, but the writer, Victoria Carless, employs an almost Pinteresque method of deferring complete knowledge. Small details like Babs’s false teeth, the drape of Gloria’s satin nightie, the intentions of Donald the butcher, all serve to paper over the fact of the people under the stairs. It’s only Sylvia in the lounge room at the moment, and the elephant hasn’t yet made an appearance.

The second program was rather a disappointment after the clever scripts and very funny situations of the first program. The two plays were less edgy, much shorter, more serious, and could have done with more rigorous workshopping. They both had interesting subjects, although neither was theatrically riveting. The first, “Garnett’s Store,” was an exercise in WW2 nostalgia, complete with the Andrew Sisters on the radio, references to the bombing of Darwin and cheating the Yanks, and a verse or two from Mary Gilmore (who reads her nowadays?). The second short play, “Nineteen Pages,” opened with the graphic sounds of a car crash. The adolescent angst/grief which followed was fairly well balanced by two rather strange young characters called only “narrators” in the program, who commented on the action and wrote cryptic things in notebooks. They were certainly a leavening element, but whether they were from Mars or from beyond the pearly gates was not very clear. If only people wrote more drama for radio nowadays. Both these plays would have made good pieces for voices only, because the staging of them diminished rather than enhanced the narrative and the actual quality of the writing. The actors worked hard and were certainly competent for the most part, but that gulf remained.

I notice that Backbone Youth Arts group is working with children in the new State Library children’s corner when it opens later this month, making puppets, telling stories through dance and creating characters inspired by some favourite books. It’s good to see the Brisbane theatre scene enlivened by such a positive youthful energy as this. “Holy Guacamole” directed by Michelle Miall, “The Rainbow Dark” directed by Kat Henry, “Garnett’s Store” directed by Anthea Lock, “Nineteen Pages” directed by Melissa London

Played Oct 25-Nov 4; Wed-Sat 7.30pm

Duration : first program 2hrs 15mins (including interval of 15mins); second program 1hr 45mins (including interval of 15mins)

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Sat 4th November 2006)