By Theodora Galanis
As we settle in to our seats at Holden Street Theatres’ studio, it feels as if we have made it to a community theatre in a sleepy Suffolk town in England – the setting for A Bunch of Amateurs. The intimate stage is sparsely set: three wooden chairs sit in front of a blue curtain, with a “Stratford Players” sign nailed to the frame. However, the setting’s modesty does not give anything away of the fast-paced, witty comedy which unravels in the scenes to follow.
Petra Schulenburg, playing Dorothy Nettle, walks on stage dressed in a bohemian-looking shawl, and it is not yet clear whether she is in or out of character. With the passion and conviction of a true artist, Schulenburg proclaims to the audience the virtues of the theatre: an artform that is able to draw you away from the hum-drum of your everyday reality and into the fantastical world of your imagination. As the rest of the cast joins her on stage, and the fourth wall is rebuilt, it becomes obvious that Schulenburg was indeed acting as her character, the director of The Stratford Players.
Presented by Red Phoenix Theatre Company and directed by Michael Eustice, A Bunch of Amateurs marks its Adelaide premiere at Holden Street Theatres. The play follows the story of an amateur theatre troupe who are desperately trying to save their local theatre from being bulldozed by powerful property developers. With dismal funding and little council support, the troupe decides to harness some star power to save their community. Hollywood action hero, Jefferson Steele, played by Brant Eustice, is flown in from Los Angeles to play the character of King Lear at the Stratford Player’s final fundraising production. However, the egotistic star spirals into meltdown as he quickly realises he is not playing for the respected Royal Shakespeare Theatre company, but rather, playing for an enthusiastic group of thespian volunteers. While Dorothy tries to save her theatre, and Jefferson, his tarnished public image, the audience laughs as the Stratford Players pull together an unlikely rendition of Shakespeare’s most iconic text.
King Lear forms the play’s thematic core as parallels are drawn in the exploration of money, greed and power. Similarities are also found in the characters and their growing relationships with each other. For example, the mad King Lear is a bleak reflection of Jefferson Steele’s character, and the relationship with his daughter, Jessica Steele, played by Laura Antoniazzi reflects that of Lear and his infamous daughters.
Written by satirists, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, the script for A Bunch of Amateurs also draws from the Shakespearean stylistic toolkit, engaging the audience with direct address soliloquies and a strong dose of dramatic irony. The playwrights ironically invert the emotional tropes of King Lear, and instead invoke an exaggerated comedic tone. In this way, the production lacks nuance at times, which sometimes leaves a sense of predictability moving through the play. However, Eustice expertly directs good-witted slapstick foolery to keep the laughs going in the moments where the dialogue is weighed down by clunky expository details.
A Bunch of Amateurs is almost meta-theatrical: it constantly draws attention to its nature as a dramatic production in Adelaide by exploring the chaos and commitment of a local theatre troop in England. As seen in Schulenburg’s opening monologue, the production takes its stride in the moments where the lines between the play and the real-world seem to blur. The comedy is at its best in the unpretentious scenes at the Stratford Players’ rehearsals, where it’s not hard to imagine the actual cast doing the same thing as they prepared for their production. A Bunch of Amateurs is a celebration of local artistic communities, all while having the audience clapping in applause and cackling at every line.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.