By Katy Fordee and Aleathea Monsour
If you like suspenseful ghost stories you’ll want to see this show. If you like intelligent love stories you’ll want to see this show. If you like edgy, modern musical theatre you’ll want to see this show. If you’re excited by intense, energetic acting, assured direction, and professional attention to detail at all levels you certainly won’t want to miss this show.
Katy Forde and Aleathea Monsour came together to form Spangled Drongo Productions for the express purpose of developing new Australian musical theatre and theirs is proving a very successful creative collaboration. Katy Forde’s sure dramatic sense and ability to write authentic-sounding dialogue is well matched with Aleathea Monsour’s fertile musical talents; and their shared vision for the potential of this genre augurs well for the future.
Part of the publicity for Of Our Own Volition describes the show as ‘part love story, part ghost story. Either way, don’t come alone’, which sounds like hype, but I was genuinely glad I hadn’t come alone as I found myself frequently in need of a hand to grab in the creepier moments, which the writer and director contrived to make seriously disturbing without resorting to flashy tricks.
The play opens with a young couple trapped in the dead-end world of work in a call-centre, but quickly moves to an old gaol, now a museum, where the ebulliently naïve Cory has taken his less than enthusiastic girlfriend for a spot of amateur ghost hunting. He believes she should “get a little hobby, Hon”, but she would, understandably, prefer to be at home watching CSI. One of the major strengths of the script is the gently ironic and non-judgemental depiction of this very ordinary young couple.
Cory, a distant relative of Tennessee Williams’ Gentleman Caller, is brash and often insensitive, but genuinely concerned to put a smile on his self-effacing girlfriend’s face. She, lacking confidence in her own abilities, is in the habit of losing herself not in Laura’s glass menagerie, but in the sit-com world of TV. Overly aware of her deficiencies (she keeps apologising to the ghost that she “didn’t do history at school”) Jess appears at first a natural victim, just as Cory has the potential for bullying. This aspect of their relationship is intriguingly explored later when each is temporarily affected by the lingering spirits of the place. By the end of the piece a different balance in the relationship is established and their future looks distinctly brighter.
As an actor Ross Balbuziente has the gift of making an immediate energetic connection with an audience, and his Cory is a bouncy Tigger to Aleathea Monsour’s initially more diffident Eeyore. As Jess’s character develops in unexpected ways he is able to show us Cory’s shift from puzzlement, jealousy and resentment to eventual acceptance and admiration. His momentary violence is convincingly threatening and his fear palpable.
Jess is a beautifully developed character and Aleathea Monsour brings her superbly to life. She shows us the depth of compassion in this initially unremarkable young woman which leads her to an understanding not only of the mystery at the heart of the story, but also of the power of choice and her own strength to exercise it. Together these two talented actors create the world of meaningless work, uncertain futures and the endless optimism of love that is the normality into which the supernatural is called.
The third actor in this piece is Paul Careless who plays the unquiet spirit who responds to Cory’s rash summons. This is a perfectly controlled performance that makes his character’s presence all the more chilling for the restraint with which it is presented. His is a non-singing part, but special mention must be made to the quality of his speaking voice which conveys all the problem and pathos of his character’s unhappy situation.
So far this review has treated Of Our Own Volition as if it were a play rather than a piece of musical theatre, but this is meant as a compliment rather than an oversight. The piece would work perfectly well as a straight drama, but Aleathea’s Monsour’s score and the singing of the two main characters adds another dimension that heightens both the comedy and the seriousness of the work. My only moment of disquiet on the first night was in the opening number when the musicians drowned the singers’ voices and, since I was in the second row and couldn’t hear most of the words, this was rather a worry. However, as the piece progressed the problem did not recur and will doubtless be fixed in subsequent performances. Overall the background music and ghostly sounds helped create and support the many tensions of the show without obvious intrusion. The songs were appropriately witty, revealing of character, or moving, and each was given simple but effective choreography. Both Ross Balbuziente and Aleathea Monsour have strong and tuneful voices which blend well together and each relished the challenges of the complex solo numbers.
Full marks to the director Bridget Boyle and the technical crew for preparing a show that was tight and well-timed, with spot-on lighting, musical and sound effects all contributing to the professional feel of the evening. Clearly there is a wealth of talent on show and behind the scenes in this production and Brisbane can look forward to a very exciting musical theatre scene for many years to come.
Directed by Bridget Boyle
Musical Direction by Gary Nunn
Playing until 20 October 2007: Wed-Sat 7:30pm, Sat matinees 3:00pm
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no interval