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A Hero's funeral

by Eric Scott www.absolutetheatre.com.au
June 10, 2009

A Hero’s Funeral
By Ian Callinan
Directed by Laraine Griffiths and William Davies
Brisbane Arts Theatre
Petrie Terrace

I HAD great expectations of this play. The subject was unusual and the writer a well-known novelist and playwright.
The hero whose funeral was highlighted was Michael Slinger a WWII Lancaster bomber pilot, who was also an international test cricketer – playing for Australia alongside the likes of Sir Donald Bradman.
He was also a devil-may-care womaniser who, after being unable to settle down after the war, took to drink and let his life fall to pieces.
Aussie legend Keith Miller comes to mind, although the play is not based on his life.
At this funeral are his widow Eva and children Walter, Denise and Donald – all named after famous cricketers (Walter Hammond, Dennis Compton and of course Don Bradman).
Sadly my expectations were not met.
I was not sure at first whether it was the script or the actors, but eventually I thought it was a bit of both.
The play has a torrent of words – but to the actors’ credit they had them down pretty well. There were very few instances of obvious missed lines, although they seemed to struggle at times as the pace dropped to a slow walk.
The play opens as self confessed baby boomer Walter, played by a pony-tailed Ian Rennie enters his sister’s house, only to be told by Denise that is unwelcome and to go away. There is no build-up. We know there is hatred and it is baldly stated so there is nowhere to progress withy this situation,
Walter is told to leave by many people many times but he never does. Repetition is one fault with the play. Denise constantly tells Walter she hates him, Walter constantly tells us how bad life was with father and how badly he treated Donald. Donald constantly disagrees.
Surely the directors would have picked this during the early rehearsal of a brand new, unperformed play and asked the author to work with them to tighten it up.
Denise was for me the strongest character and she was excellently played by Jenny Hall who was a standout in the cast.
I did not like Walter at all. He was a one-dimensional character, rude, greedy and crass enough to walk around the room on the eve of his father’s funeral calculating how much he could get for the old photos and memorabilia.
He knew nothing about music either as he called his piano-teacher sister “a failed concert pianist”. Anyone who reached that standard of musicianship could never be accused of failing,
The man has no redeeming features at all, but Ian Rennie is not a strong enough actor to turn him into something really nasty and evil, as I am sure he was meant to be. He came across as a silly, thoughtless person with no depth to his character at all.
The widow Eva, a one-time German waif, was played by Diane O’Beirne, who as I have seen in previous performances, is a good actor, but there she had little to say or do, except refuse to talk about her marriage and her husband. There are times when she is just sitting on a settee while the others talk around her.
We learn lots about the feelings of the family but little about the hero.
Younger brother Donald is played by Gareth Ward and again the character has little to add to the story.
Finally Richard enters. Richard is an old wartime buddy of Michael who is a mystery man to the family, but an obvious close friend of Eva. During his visit to the house there are many clumsy and forced conversations that lead nowhere. He is played with a lot of heavy frowning and head shaking by Ross Coombes.
Attempts are repetitiously made to find out who he is and more about father, but he is as secretive as Eva. Finally, after much prompting he reveals how Michael won his Distinguished Flying Cross. I couldn’t understand why it was such a secret; it was an act of bravery with no sinister undertones.
But there is a lot of promise in the play, there is some tight writing and intriguing situations but they get lost in peripheral waffle. There is a climax that could be jaw-dropping, but it was such a long drawn out lead-up that in the end it didn’t matter anyway.
There was also discrepancy in timing. There is nothing in the program to tell us when it is set, but there are enough modern references to show it is a 21st century setting, which makes Eva’s age of 70, much too young. She was 18 when she met her husband, which would at the latest be in 1948 well after the war was over and cricket had resumed; and her son being a baby boomer, sets his birth in the 1950s. The figures just don’t add up to me. Apart from that neither sibling looked to be in their early fifties.
A workshopping or two to clean up the script, to get rid of the repetition and add some depth to Walter and Eva in particular would help turn this from a ho-hum play into a good one that good actors could really get their teeth into.
It continues at the Arts Theatre until June 13. Bookings on 07 3369 2344.



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