The premiere of a new show with a twist.
I’ve done a show with Nancye Hayes. There, I’ve got that out of the way. A few years back I was lucky enough to be included in the cast of a very exciting but ill-fated production of Follies in Concert in which Ms. Hayes played Phyllis. It was a privilege to see such a consummate professional up close, and that professionalism was evident in spades at the Melbourne opening of Turns at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre on Wednesday 29 June.
I am also old enough to have seen Reg Livermore in his ground-breaking Betty Blokk Buster Follies series.
Both Hayes and Livermore have had phenomenal careers lasting over 50 years, encompassing almost every aspect of theatre and television. With the prospect of seeing two doyens of Australian theatre with over 100 years of combined experience, I looked forward to Turns with excitement.
Devised and written by Reg Livermore, Turns is virtually a two hander. Hayes plays Marjorie Joy Moncreiff, a ninety-five year old former entertainer approaching the end of her life and Livermore plays her long suffering son, Alistair. For the last part of the show Livermore is joined on stage by the musical accompanist, Vincent Colagiuri.
As the show opens we meet Miss Marjorie Joy (Hayes), an apparition in the most bizarre costume, part tattered pantomime dame, part clown, as she does her ‘turn’ upon a faux vaudeville stage. She is joined by Livermore, an ageing man in a boy’s sailor suit.
Set designer James Browne has managed to reduce the cavernous Playhouse stage with the use of a false proscenium papered with old advertisements for Rinso, Bovril and Indian Root Pills. It is a decrepit, dingy space that speaks of past glories and years of neglect, much like Miss Marjorie Joy herself.
With a clever change of set we next find ourselves in the bedroom of a maisonette overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge. For the next fifty or so minutes, Marjorie embarks on a series of reminiscences about her former life as an entertainer, her triumphs, her romances, her disappointing marriage and her increasingly wild conspiracy theories involving her son, Alistair. She is Mrs. Malaprop on speed, mangling almost every sentence she utters and her delivery never falters. Hayes has the most wonderfully expressive face and she uses it to full advantage here. She flits around the stage, occasionally breaking into a dance routine, with an agility that belies her years. Livermore appears occasionally as Alistair/the doctor and as Marjorie’s cruel, domineering, unfaithful husband.
The major problem with this portion of the show, and I think, of the show as a whole, is that this ‘turn’ went on for far too long. In his program notes Livermore describes the show as “a broad reflection on show business (intertwining) some outrageous fun and games, elements of mystery, echoes of slapstick, 1940’s film noir... music hall, vaudeville, cabaret, above all traditional pantomime”. And we got the lot in fifty minutes. It was clever and witty with some extremely funny one liners but it didn’t take the audience anywhere. It was entertaining certainly, but it just wasn’t very interesting.
The final part of the show takes the form of a monologue, as an increasing tipsy Alistair celebrates his mother’s passing and his own freedom. By now the set has changed to a bar with a star cloth backing and a piano. Inexplicably, as soon as Livermore enters, he places the urn containing Marjorie’s ashes on the downstage end of the piano, thereby robbing half the audience of a view of the very fetching Mr. Colagiuri.
This is Livermore’s ‘turn’ as we see the effect that his mother’s gradual decline has had on the once vibrant Alistair and we learn the real truth about Marjorie’s life. As Alistair puts it, Marjorie wasn’t satisfied with that life so she “designed a life for herself”. Alistair also designs a life for himself as he reveals in the final moments of the monologue.
There is no denying Reg Livermore’s talent as a writer and there are some genuinely funny moments, not least of which is “The Incident of the Gonad”, but I found this piece strangely lacking in emotion. Gone is the “squirm in your seat” acidity of his earlier work. And anyone who has experienced a parent with dementia knows that there is more than enough heartbreak in the situation to reduce an audience to tears in an instant. Again we were more entertained than moved.
Production values are good overall. Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting compliments James Browne’s clever set design, although there was an occasional lapse in the lighting operation. I wasn’t quite so enamoured with Matthew Arberline’s costume design. I felt Miss Hayes’ costume was so extreme that it robbed her of all reality. Her final costume, however, is an over-the-top masterpiece. Vincent Colagiuri’s piano accompaniment is very sympathetic to the piece.
It occurred to me as I was writing this review that many younger readers wouldn’t know what the title Turns refers to, so I reached for Google and came up with: ‘British (and 19th-century American) phrase ‘stage turn’: one of several acts on a variety bill’. And this is what this show feels like; a collection of ‘turns’, each clever in their own way, but which don’t quite hang together as a satisfying whole. This is a show which will appeal to Hayes and Livermore’s many fans and to those with an interest in theatrical history. As the man next to me commented “It was good fun”. And it was. But I would have liked a little more substance.
Turns is in the fifth month of a seven month Australian tour.
It will be playing at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre until July 9. Bookings: 1300 182 183 or www.theartscentre.com.au.