REVIEW: Once We Lived Here, Kings Head Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Last Updated on 17th July 2014

Once We Lived Here. Photo: Roy Tan
Once We Lived Here. Photo: Roy Tan

Once We Lived There
King’s Head Theatre
24 April 2014
4 Stars

Broke a cardinal rule (Never enter an auditorium once a performance has begun; it is disrespectful to the artists and the other audience members) last Thursday, thanks to the usually efficient London Overground which was uncharacteristically broken and in full White Rabbit mode. Thank the Stars, because otherwise the London premiere of Dean Bryant and Matthew Frank’s musical Once We Lived Here, playing at the King’s Head Theatre, would have been missed.

And that would have been a tragedy, because this is an important, quite remarkable, piece of musical theatre, one worth support and one which should be seen.

If it had been written in the UK, the chances are great, it seems to me, that a body like the National Theatre would have picked it up and cherished, nurtured and supported it. Years of workshops and the input of a well resourced production house would have ensured it had a friendly and collaborative gestation followed by a fully blown production with all relevant bells and whistles. But Australia has no equivalent of the National Theatre and the governmental desire to properly support home-grown writing all but non-existent.

Once We Live Here is, in every way, a better piece than The Light Princess, yet the latter has had an incubation period and an debutante ball the former could only wish for – and should have had.

The writing throbs with a directness and a sensibility that is entirely Australian. The characters are skillfully drawn and the narrative they canter along with is as full of twists and turns as any country brook. The heat is ever present too, in the temperature in which the characters on the farm live and in the endlessly simmering tempers made sharp or dull by the ravages of the past, misunderstanding, shame and duty.

It is a simple enough concept. A farm in rural Australia. One daughter escaped to the City; one son went walkabout. Eldest daughter stayed on the Farm, living the life she thinks her dead father would have wanted her to live. Mum is dying with cancer, so the kids come back to the farm – and unresolved tensions blossom and belch uncomfortably, hurtfully, but in a startlingly realistic way. Add a wild card in the return of a former Farm hand and light the blue touch paper.

Bryant’s writing is concise, true and full of pain and hope. He plays with the linear timeline nicely so the family are encountered at different times in their life on the Farm. Layer by layer, the things which divide the family, but also those that bind, are revealed.

Frank’s music is mostly beguiling, sometimes terrific but never dull. It is chock full of the sense of Australia as well, and it’s best moments are quite something: Ordinary Day, Guitar Lesson, Only You, We Like It That Way, The Leaves In Summer. Every one a gem.

Bryant also directed this production. I suspect that what this show really needs is a director without any connection to the piece. Like so much theatrical work, the show is actually greater than the sum of its parts, and a fresh eye would help unveil some of the hidden nuances in the characters and the story.

The best performances here are very good indeed.

Shaun Rennie is delightful as Burke, the nomadic Farm hand whose return to the old Macpherson farm has ramifications for everyone in the Macpherson family. Virile, rough and silently contained, Rennie is the epitome of the casual bushman, at ease with all, ready to turn his hand at anything and always with an eye for a chance, whether it be with a farmer’s wife or a work prospect. With a beard that proclaimed long stretches of solitude and contemplation, the performance was relaxed and complex, and Rennie sang effortlessly well.

As Lecy, the daughter who fled the Farm for the glamour, shallowness and excitement of the City, Belinda Wollaston is delicious, sharp and vulnerable all at once. She handles the slightly ditzy comedy well, but is also supremely effective in the intricate scenes of family entanglement. Indeed, it is Wollaston who most easily persuades the audience that the Macphersons are a family – she binds Mother, brother and sister together in a generous performance full of lustre and gentle, impeccable detail. She also sings with gusto and warmth and her final reflective “When we were little, we had so much fun here” scene is genuinely heartfelt and impactful.

Melle Stewart threw herself enthusiastically into the role of the older sister, Amy, the tomboy mini-me Farmer always shrouded in the shadow of her departed father. She was at her best in her scenes with Rennie (Amy and Burke have a past and unfinished business) which were direct, full of charm and achingly honest. Her sparring with Wollaston’s Lecy was also exact, a proper evocation of the particular sibling bond that sisters can have – no suffering of fools but every word balanced on the filial scales. Stewart has a great voice and it fused well with the score, producing some of the finest musical moments of the evening.

It is a hard task to pull off an authentic Australian accent, an even harder one when the cast around you are all Australian, but Lestyn Arwel managed it better than many would have (although he seemed the Macpherson brother from New Zealand more often than not). Arwel has an easy charm onstage which, curiously, seemed to work against the brooding, sulky and absolutely lost character of the youngest Macpherson, Shaun. Whereas the sisters were clearly defined, Shaun was more amorphous, more elusive a character. This seemed more an acting/direction choice rather than something in the writing and an odd one, because, as the evening played out, Shaun turns out to be a complex character, but just as precisely written as his sisters.

Claire, the Macpherson matriarch, is one of those tanned, grounded, indefatigable women the Australian outback was built on – unstoppable, dry, clever, wise, big-hearted and incorrigible. The type of woman who would not let a tiresome distraction like terminal cancer stand in the way of a full day’s work and looking after other people. Simone Craddock made a decent fist of the role, but needed to ratchet up the salt-of-the-Earth no-nonsense dour delight inherent in this fierce and magnetic woman. Claire has more highs and lows than Craddock unearthed here.

Alex Beetschen and the small band played the music energetically and with style. Generally speaking, singing was of a very high standard and unearthed the many pleasures of the score.

The space is tiny and Christopher Hone’s design did a good job of evoking the sense of the various places in and around the Farm.

It’s a joy to see and hear creative Australian voices, onstage and off, in London. This show is worth a full scale production, properly funded and promoted. It’s a true pity its short season has now concluded.

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