Home is more than simply ‘a place’. It has profound emotional meaning, providing comfort, a sense of community. It is deeply layered, defined by memories, possessions and people, often shifting as the memories and people come and go. But as much as we define home, home also defines us.
Such is the premise of this uniquely Australian work, Once We Lived Here. Created by WAPPA Music Theatre graduates Mathew Frank (Score) and Dean Bryant (Book & Lyrics) this rarely produced work won the Green Room Award for Best New Australian Musical in 2010.
The rural narrative is a familiar one. The McPherson’s have worked the same land for generations. After years of drought and financial hardship and now personal tragedy, they battle to keep hold of the family property ‘Emoh Ruo’. Home together for a long weekend after years of disconnect, they are forced to confront past tragedy and unspoken truths.
Bryant and Frank create a topical and often affecting Australian work. Although taking a while to click into, I grew to love the natural Aussie flatness in the vocal delivery. It’s not an easy work. It’s often dark and angry, and you probably won’t walk out humming a joyous melody line. But that’s ok, because it’s a musical of unsettling substance, illustrating the tragic personal burdens facing the farming community. The one major difficulty though is there is little relief throughout the piece. Act 1 is hard work, and could benefit from an edit or two and a splash more light and shade. (Grab a well earned drink at interval). The McPherson family history scene at the beginning of act 2 is a hilarious highlight and welcome comedic relief. It was finally nice to have a series of laugh out loud moments.
Given the constraints of the small space, Musical Director Joshua Haines is presented with a difficult task. Audience in the performing space means vocal control is paramount and the restraint shown here only enhances the emotional pull of the work. Never once did it feel over-sung. The great sounding and well balanced band (Joshua Haines – Piano, Harry Love – Guitar, Luis Santos – Double Bass) are a highlight.
Director Andrew Baker presents another humanly personal and thought provoking piece. As with the vocal, there is restraint and simplicity in the direction, telling the human story. To develop this difficult piece, in a difficult space and deliver the work with such honesty in little on 3 weeks, is an outstanding achievement.
The collaboration between Baker and designer Rhiannon Walker is one that obviously works having collaborated together on the award winning A Man of No Importance. The Blue Room main stage is not an easy space to design, but Walker has given us a unique interpretation of ‘Emoh Ruo’. The clever use of levels, the use of wood and corrugated iron offsets the wonderfully intricate earthen coloured landscape mural. Coupled with Katrina Johnston’s emotive lighting design, and the touch of an occasional ‘blowie’ soundscape, we are completely immersed in a harsh and dry land.
Delivered by anything but a talented cast, this deceptively difficult work would fall flat, but not here. The always engaging Taryn Ryan is a strong and resilient Amy, the daughter who puts everything, including relationships, second to working and saving the farm. The matriarch of the family, terminally ill Claire, is played with such warmth by Sharon Kiely. Her scenes with son Shaun, Joshua Firman, whom she ‘lost’ following a family tragedy are memorable. Firman’s cute kid-to-man drifting through life, shrugging off responsibility, is lovely to watch. Megan Kozak’s Lecy, totally displaced back at the farm, has some wonderful one liners. Her scenes with Burke, Ryan Dawson, the ex-farmhand and ex-boyfriend of Amy, are uncomfortably desperate. And Dawson (that voice!) brings wonderful strength to Burke, a man resolute in rekindling his relationship with Amy.
There is something intriguingly organic to this production. It has a rawness that enhances the whole tone and setting. It’s refreshing to see a fledgling theatre company, Western Sky, taking risks, offering Perth audiences something new in Music Theatre, something unknown, something challenging. And this should be supported wholeheartedly. Once We Lived Here runs at the Blue Room until Nov 4. (Tickets)
Photo credit: Marshall Stay