For their last show of the 2015 Season, Melbourne Theatre Company have commissioned a work that seems slightly mistimed. Focussing on the last remaining Gallipoli digger, a greater degree of poignancy could have been given to this production with an April premiere, rather than launching on Remembrance Day, but sadly even with more pointed timing, this uneven offering wouldn’t be saved from having mild impact.
Playwright Steve Vizard has devised a premise that offers a refreshingly different take on the Anzac legend to that which we as nation like to romanticise. This comedy begins with an effort to commemorate the landings and score political brownie points by the Minister of Defence, who employs an Afghanistan veteran, ‘the bull of Kabul’, Colonel Hope to coordinate a patriotic centennial concert. When the producer he hires to put the show together uncovers that there is, in fact, one last remaining Gallipoli soldier alive, they seek him out and build the concert around poems he penned at the time. Little do they know, this supposed 115 year-old is also an inveterate liar with a war-story that veers wildly from the type of propaganda the Minister is keen to distil.
Avoiding the cliché of putting Gallipoli veterans on a pedestal, Vizard creates something truly unusual and comes out of the gates raring to go with lots of great humour and a stunningly brilliant comedic performance, as usual, from Nikki Wendt as the Minister. William McInnes offers fantastic ‘straight man’ support as Colonel Raymond Hope, who along with his charmingly official government appointed assistant Captain Skurry (Esther Hannaford) represent the kind of military efficiency that never mixes so well with the arts.
As the television producer tasked with trying to make the concert entertaining, Allison Whyte is underutilised and struggles to make much of a rather one-dimensional character. The same can’t be said about the last Anzac, Clarry Flint, played by Peter Carroll. Full of deliberate misdirection and sly moves, this centenarian is incredibly wily for his age. Taking advantage of the situation, he makes use of the concert team’s interest to get what he wants for himself; however his ultimate motivations seem confused, perhaps a reflection of his age and mental stability. A living legend himself, Carroll carries this production and charms his way through every scene he’s in, proving to still be quite the singer and dancer at 71 years of age.
Paul Grabowsky has added a handful of new songs to this production which when combined with a bunch of other standards make for something short of a musical. Some are quite beautiful, such as the ghostly ‘Cause and Effect’, while others such as ‘An Anzac Recipe’ are hilariously satirical or historically referential, as in ‘Dipsy Doodle’. For a lover of musicals, this scattershot use of music can be frustratingly underdone, but the bigger issue here is the blurring of lines between how songs are used in a musical and how they are used in a play. With plays, songs usually tend to be part of the reality of the story (e.g. when sung in rehearsal for a concert), whereas in a musical songs are often also presented in a surreal breaking of the fourth wall, telling a story to the audience. Here, both styles are used which makes for an odd straddling of realities in this format. Musical Director and pianist Andrew Patterson, along with violinist Ed Antonov make lovely gentle use of the score, blending seamlessly with the action.
The real problem with this new work however is not the setup, nor the ending, which is quite touching and beautifully realised, it’s that the middle (pretty much from the moment we meet Clarry onwards) is plodding, tired and quite simply a little bit dull. The scenes play out like sketches and seem to go nowhere, Clarry’s efforts to obfuscate the truth from the production team seem to have no point and Vizard gets bogged down between jabs at embarrassingly dated targets, such as Dancing with the Stars and 2014 Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst and making in-jokes about influential television producer Des Monaghan.
Director Roger Hodgman has put together a well-presented production, but hasn’t been able to polish the script so as to overcome the stodginess of the writing in its central scenes. Technical aspects of the play are functional but break no new ground.
While The Last Man Standing is quite enjoyable and emotive at times, it’s quite heartbreaking that it simply doesn’t live up to its promise. Many shows don’t have beginnings and endings that are strong as they are here, but all should be aiming to engage more than this one does with its doughy centre.