Red Cap

with the Queensland Music Festival and Mt Isa City Council (La Boite Theatre Company)


By Janis Balodis

Professional production

I think you really have to be a True Believer to make much sense of this show (I can’t really call it a play), because even for a tired old Leftie like me for me it didn’t work on stage either as entertainment or as agit-prop, in spite of the undoubted talents of cast, director and composer.

I don’t think that anyone would deny the political importance of the miners’ strike at Mt Isa Mines in 1964/65, or of the role played by the controversial and ambiguous Pat Mackie and his trademark red baseball cap (he still wears it in the nursing home, I believe, more power to his elbow), but converting this material into meaningful drama is a different matter altogether.

This kind of thing can be done, whether as musical drama or semi-documentary, and I was immediately reminded of the 1969 musical Oh! What a Lovely War! which, although not dealing with individual characters, used the historically specific setting of World War I to tackle the issue of armed conflict in the form of comic cabaret. In stage drama, it was I am Work, a drama about mining magnate Essington Lewis that I was reminded of; and the recent television documentary Bastard Boys also resonated when I saw Red Cap. But in all those shows, there was a theatrical magic that raised them above the level of pure politics, a magic that was sadly missing in this show.

It’s such a pity, for the ingredients are all there. There’s a delicious score from Iain Grandage, with echoes of everyone from Kurt Weill to Sondheim and even the dreaded Andrew Lloyd Webber – “Do you hear the people sing?” from Les Miserables kept niggling at the edges of my mind – and it’s all sung beautifully by the Brisbane Canto Coro under the baton of Mark Dunbar, while Iain Grandage’s nifty little five-piece band gave the score everything it deserved.

There were good performances, too, from Brisbane super-stars Liz Buchanan, Sandro Colarelli, Sally McKenzie, Peter Marshall and Daniel Murphy, but the directing decisions were rather too tricky, with the red cap passing from one actor to another, so that Pat Mackie is played principally by Peter Marshall, but (I think) with Colarelli and McKenzie also assuming the role for a few minutes. This adds nothing but confusion in a show where there’s very little characterisation in the first play. It’s not really a play about Pat Mackie, as the director’s notes make clear, but about the workers and the bosses, but the characterisation is as slippery as Mackie himself, and in a reversal of the old trick of one actor wearing many caps, here it’s many actors wearing one cap, so we find it hard to focus on the key issues.

This may be a deliberate directorial intention, but I speak here purely as an audience member, and if I had walked into the Roundhouse Theatre last night knowing nothing about the issue, I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on. My companion certainly didn’t, and even having read the background to the show I was only one step ahead of her, while the wall-projections of dates and times didn’t help much either, merely giving the same-old same-old disputes and speeches a chronological definition.

This is an object lesson of the danger of single-issue theatre, especially political theatre, that it’s so easy to ghetto-ise a potential audience. If you need to be a card-carrying member of the AWU, or even a share-holder in MIM, before this show can really speak to you, then I suggest it doesn’t belong in main-stream theatre. Certainly it’s good fun, and there are lots of nice little character cameos and some really good singers – has Sally McKenzie ever considered moon-lighting as a husky torch-singer? and Sandro Colarelli would give my old swoon-machine Dean Martin a run for his money – but I’d like to see them, and all the others, in a more tightly-structured and clearly-differentiated piece.

One could argue that, as part of the Queensland Music Festival, a show like this has more license to experiment than a main-season production, but there’s so much wasted potential here, in the way of engaging an audience, that I can only grieve for an opportunity lost. It’s a gripping story, with many subtle moral dilemmas inherent in it, so why was I constantly looking at my watch?

Director/designer Sean Mee

Composer/musical director Iain Grandage

Playing until 4 August 2007: Monday – Wednesday at 6.30pm, Thursday – Saturday at 8pm, matinees Saturday 28 July and Saturday 4 August at 2pm

Duration : 90 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 19th July 2007)