The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay

Roundhouse (La Boite Theatre Company)


Adapted by Sean Mee from a novel by Rebecca Sparrow

Professional production

Do you remember the Rubik cube, Olivia Newton-John singing “Let’s Get Physical”, leg warmers, Kylie Mole, Expo, and all the other cultural icons of the late 1980s?

There are many more in The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay, the latest in La Boite’s series of Coming-of-Age-in-Brisbane plays, but those were the only ones I recognised. But it wasn’t because I have always distanced myself from the period that I missed most of the other references, for the 20-year-old sitting behind me didn’t either – it was all far too old-fashioned for her. Which proves one of two things: either that the play was targeted at a particular demographic, the Thirty-Somethings, who were in their late teens at the time; or else that teenage culture of whatever period is equally awful, and that in spite of leopard-patterned tights and neat black knickers, the kids of the 1980s were no better, and certainly no worse, than teenagers today, or in the 1960s, or indeed in any period.
BR> Parents may be hip or square, liberal or repressive – their teenage children are always going to resent their authority and find their behaviour excruciatingly embarrassing. Teenagers are always going to be screwed up by their hormones and their emotions, and always trying to find their role in society. Parties are always going to be riotous, and too much alcohol (and these days, drugs) will be consumed, and school teachers will always be the enemy. So what makes Nick and Zoe and Rachel any different from today’s teenagers?

Not a lot, really. The colours are louder – we’re not yet into the Goth era – and so is the music, but teenage angst remains constant, and Rachel (played very effectively, although always on the same level, by Neridah Waters) is torn between revealing her lust for Nick McGowan (a strong but equally single-faceted performance from Tim Dashwood), and playing hard to get. Her school friend Zoe (Hannah Levien in full Kylie Mole mode) tries to tempt her away from her studies, her parents have taken troubled school-mate Nick into the house against Rachel’s will, she retreats to her bedroom a lot, changes the posters on her wall, and hugs her pussy-cat pillow. The only relief for us as audience is that this is before the days of mobile phones and personal computers in the bedroom, and that her parents limit her phone calls to five minutes.

It’s a very slight piece, with no character development, no plot of any interest, and almost nothing to say. Where it does succeed is as a portrait of a particular time in the life of Brisbane, with enough geographical references to give the audience a good giggle, and plenty of nostalgic music, most of it cleverly written by Tyrone Noonan, and performed with even greater skill by the multi-layered Bryan Probets, who constantly surprises me with his hidden talents. Probets, already well-established as a serious actor, here proves himself to be a comic genius as well, and after this performance as dancer and rocker he’s ready to be snapped up by some enterprising entrepreneur.

Elise Greig is Rachel’s mum, a wicked caricature of the age-defying trendy mother, whose exuberance puts her dull daughter in the shade, and who treats her like a baby, still helping her to dress and undress, and waiting on her hand and foot to the extent of picking up her clothes from where she’s dropped them on the floor. “I should be so lucky!” – but isn’t that a Kylie Minogue song? You can see how out-of-touch I am.

The set is composed of six brightly-coloured boxes on wheels, which are moved around the acting space with irritating frequency, and open out to become a school photo-copier, a kitchen table, Rachel’s bed, and anything else the plot calls for. The boxes mirror the characters to some extent – loud, superficial and without much originality – so I’ll give the set the benefit of the doubt and call it an effective underlining of the theme of the play.

The show, adapted from a novel for young adults by Rebecca Sparrow, is very entertaining, and provides easy laughs of the “Did we really behave like that?” kind, and for even younger audiences it might act as a dreadful warning about how they appear to other generations, but when you’re young and the hormones are kicking in, who cares about what old people think? You and I were like that once, and our children and grandchildren are and will be, so all this play proves is that time is circular rather than linear, that young people should all be allowed to make fools of themselves, and that the fashions of the 1980s were only marginally less horrible than those of the 1960s, and that retro-anything should be banned as a dress code.

I appreciate that part of La Boite’s mission is to create a new theatre audience, and they’re doing it very successfully, but please, next year, can we have something less frivolous? Other independent companies in Brisbane are doing more serious stuff, and managing to attract young audiences, and the La Boite set deserve something better than a stepping-stone to Menopause the Musical, no matter how much fun it might be. This play is the young person’s version of Grumpy Old Women, where the only laughs are those of recognition. It’s not a play for grown-ups, and I didn’t speak to anyone over 40 who thought it had much value.

Light entertainment is good fun, but La Boite has given us a non-stop diet of it this year. Young audiences don’t need to be fed simple-minded pap like this – the success of John Bell’s Romeo and Juliet last year, and almost anything by David Brown (think Kill Everything You Love, for example), is proof enough that younger audiences appreciate drama with bite, and gives therm some ideas to think about.

Director/adaptor: Sean Mee

Designers: Josh McIntosh (set), Jo Currey (lighting)

Composer/arranger: Tyrone Noonan

Choreographer: Neridah Waters

Playing Thursday 17 May – Saturday 9 June 2007; Tuesday and Wednesday at 6.30pm, Thursday – Saturday at 8pm, matinees Tuesday 22 and 29 May at 11am, Saturday 2 June at 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 30 minutes, with one 20-minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 16th May 2007)