The late Nick Enright remains one of the country’s most distinguished dramatists and playwrights. In recent times, Sydneysiders have had a number of opportunities to discover precisely why that’s the case. Last November, Darlinghurst Theatre Company presented a highly-acclaimed production of his 1994 play, Good Works, examining the lasting impact of the sins of a generation. In June, the company mounted a staging of the eerily prophetic A Man with Five Children, analysing one society’s obsession with reality television programs some time before that phenomenon actually arrived.
Now, Newtown’s New Theatre has revived one of Enright’s forays into musical theatre, Summer Rain, to cap off its 2016 season. Summer Rain was a work commissioned for third year acting students at NIDA in 1983. It’s made its way back to the stage a handful of times since, including in 2005 for a Sydney Theatre Company production under the direction of Robyn Nevin. On this occasion, the classic piece, with book and lyrics by Enright and music by Terence Clarke, has choreographer Trent Kidd at the helm, making his directorial debut at New Theatre.
The events in Summer Rain play out over a short period in 1945. On Christmas Eve, Harold Slocum (Andrew Sharp) is totally broke and therefore unable to pay his travelling vaudevillian troupe. As a consequence, the performers all leave the show, and Slocum heads to drought-ridden outback NSW with wife Ruby (Jacquie Rae Moloney), son Johnny (Tom Handley) and daughter Joy (Catty Hamilton), all of whom themselves are part of the travelling troupe.
The Slocums eventually arrive in Turnaround Creek. As is clearly established by musical number ‘Nothin doin’, Turnaround Creek is a town high on routine and low on excitement, and so most of the township is enthusiastic about this perceived disruption of that routine. The notable exception is publican Barry Doyle (Laurence Coy). There’s palpable tension between Harold and Barry, owing to the latter’s vivid recollection of events that occurred the last time Harold came to town 16 years ago.
Soon after the Slocums’ arrival, the stifling drought is suddenly broken by torrential rain that floods the creek and strands the family. While in town, they put on a show for the townsfolk, much to the locals’ excitement. Like the heavy summer rain that came to town with the Slocums, the family members quickly find they’re just what the residents of Turnaround Creek need. Like rain, their interaction with the residents becomes the catalyst for many – including the Slocum family members themselves – to re-evaluate their lives, confront their pasts and make decisions as to their future directions.
Enright’s text and lyrics are well constructed and build a narrative that is highly engaging, highly believable and, importantly, highly relatable for an Australian audience. It’s a reminder of why Enright is such a celebrated writer with an ability to evoke an era and a location through language.
As Harold Slocum, Sharp is a strong and commanding figure, successfully embodying the lifelong performer trying to cling to halcyon days long gone. As wife Ruby, and stepmother to Harold’s two children, Moloney is delightfully warm and charming. As Joy, Hamilton gives one of the standout performances of the evening. Her lovely soprano is well showcased in each of Joy’s solo vocal moments, and she dances with skill and confidence in the evening’s choreographic highlights. Hers and Jobe’s partner work provides one of the production’s greatest moments. Their performance of Kidd’s technically impressive choreography during ‘Watch the puddles’ momentarily conjures some magic reminiscent of an MGM musical.
Another standout performance of this production comes from David Hooley, who plays war veteran, Mick Hartigan. His character has returned home with a permanent leg injury, but it becomes abundantly clear early on that Mick is burdened by inner turmoil. Hooley’s portrayal of Mick is wonderfully nuanced. His characterisation is defined by a coldness and curtness that’s come about because of some terrible trauma, and that trauma has significantly impaired his ability to show love and affection for his wife, Peg (Anna Freeland). Freeland is also successful as Peg, delivering a character who is enormously sympathetic and convincingly frustrated by her husband’s emotional distance.
Interactions between performers generally feel organic throughout the two-and-a-half-hour production, but there is certainly still room for most performers to push themselves to convey greater emotional intensity at those moments where the text calls for those characters to lay their feelings bare. Sometimes, that’s in the exchanges and, at other times, it’s during moments of song. Hooley is generally strongest in terms of taking his performance to the right emotional temperature, and it would strengthen the impact of the production overall for other performers to follow his lead.
The music is vocally challenging and, at times, there remains a need for principal performers to continue settling into the score. But as an ensemble, the cast produces a solid wall of sound in larger numbers, particularly impressive as their voices must rise above the band entirely unamplified. The technical team has done a remarkable job of ensuring those levels remain appropriate right throughout the performance.
On the whole, New Theatre’s production of Summer Rain is a refreshing addition to the list of musical theatre works that have taken to stages around Sydney in 2016. An Australian work of wide and enduring appeal, Summer Rain reminds us of the vital need during our most challenging times of enduring optimism about change and possibility; to look to a horizon that will bring with it the opportunity to make the change we seek.
SUMMER RAIN – SEASON DETAILS
SEASON: 15 November – 17 December
PERFORMANCES: Thursday – Saturday 7:30pm, Sunday 5pm, Final performance: Saturday 17 December 5pm
TICKET PRICES: $17 – $32
BOOKINGS: NEWTHEATRE.ORG.AU (no booking fee)
VENUE: New Theatre, 542 King Street Newtown
EVENT URL: http://newtheatre.