Review by Thomas Gregory
One of the creators behind the wholesome movies The Castle and The Dish, as well as the biting television satires of Frontline and Utopia, have turned their hand to musical theatre, and the result is somewhat wholesome, somewhat out of touch with reality, and a whole lot of forgettable cliche. While the visuals are certainly exciting for all, the music is bland, the jokes poor, and the story far more privileged than one might expect from a writer of “The Simple Life”.
Bloom, presented by the MTC and Working Dog, is a fictional story about an unlikely scenario. A music student, Finn, is given free room and board, and all meals provided, at a nursing home that runs on a shoestring budget. In return, he is to undertake basic jobs like collecting the laundry and partaking in social activities. Of course, Finn starts the story as self-centred, lazy, and entitled. He immediately clashes with Ruby, the young aged-care worker jaded by her inability to change the system, and befriends the new “inmate”, Rose, an elderly woman filled with energy and rebellion. These three “heroes” face off against ageing, their own “flaws”, and a “villain” in the form of the administrator who must balance the books and make harsh cuts in order to keep the facility open.
This musical, with Book and Lyrics by Tom Gleisner, is highly predictable. Not “this story is so well-constructed that there is only one inevitable conclusion”, but “according to the TVTropes list, I guess now is the time we find out one of the elderly residents used to have the exact skillset needed to solve this problem.” Some of these predictable moments go against the characterisations first presented, with a shoe-horned romance that involves zero chemistry and presumes a character arc the audience never experiences. Others are still surprisingly wholesome, like the reappearance of a character in the final moments of the show. While these cliches are so prevalent, the show is careful never to become self-aware of itself or suggest that they are used in any way that isn’t sincere.
The individual jokes within this story are sure to be enjoyed by some. There is a swear jar, which one resident, in particular, enjoys giving money to, and a kleptomaniac resident whose dementia we carefully avoid discussing. The “villain” administrator, Mrs Macintyre, is the sort of Australian pantomime character one could easily expect from the D-Generation, and is played artfully by Anne Edmonds. The idea of elderly people having sexual drives and young people being lazy are both laughed at. It can best be said that the humour found in Bloom is safe, PG-rated, and avoids any critical messaging of those it lampoons. Only once does it ever get political, with a throw-away line that comments on other corrupt care systems in our country.
The music itself, composed by Katie Weston, is fun but equally paint-by-numbers. It is easy to enjoy each song at the moment, and “Here at Pine Grove” is especially engaging. However, even with it, I struggle to remember any particular phrase to hum. While forgettable, the music does showcase the incredible talent of the performers. These singers have amazing voices, and some match them with some serious acting chops.
Slone Sudiro, who plays Finn, is the stand-out performer of the show, with great comic timing, a natural charisma, and a deep understanding of how to find depth in the shallows. Vidya Makan and Christina O’Neill also shine in the other naturalistic roles of young Ruby and the caring Nurse, Gloria.
The elderly residents of Bloom are all cookie-cutter caricatures and, as such, would be relatively easy to play for even the most amateur of actors. While many audiences will be pleased to see Frankie J Holden still at his best, there is little chance for any of these actors to find something deep to work with.
The true star of Bloom is the design. The set begins as the drab, uniform hallway of the facility before, seamlessly transitioning into large recreation rooms, quiet hospital wards, or even vibrant outdoor parks. In each and every setting, the audience is offered up a polished, detailed, and emotionally impactful frame for this story. Set designer Dann Barber and lighting designer Amelia Lever-Davidson both deserve as many accolades as possible for creating something more spectacular than any big-budget Broadway production I’ve ever experienced. Charlotte Lane’s costumes are also impressive, capturing the archetypal nature of the characters and the wholesome tone of the musical perfectly.
Perhaps my biggest issue is one few will actually have. While I envision many audiences walking out having enjoyed the light yet unrealistic tale presented in Bloom, those expecting intelligent satire in a post-aged-care-commission world are going to be disappointed. In fact, make the mistake of questioning what you see even slightly, and you will find yourself looking at a play steeped in privilege, one that makes you question if these venerated comedians who challenged us in the nineties are now of the age and wealth to become out of touch.
Unsurprisingly, the most egregious examples centre around young people. In one scene, an aged-care worker, who would be earning well less than the median Australian wage, is working full-time and supporting her family. She is told (with an emphasis on this being the wise words of a knowing elder) that she should move to part-time and return to university, as she is sure to walk into a better job afterwards. The advice is given as if this would be the easiest thing in the world. Meanwhile, Finn is constantly asked why he, as a university student, would ever accept what amounts to a small part-time job in return for free rent and meals. It seems unbelievable to the characters, and one must assume, therefore, to the writers, who also ask us to accept an undergraduate student in music can walk into a position of therapist or that an unqualified mid-tier facility employee would be offered even a temporary position running an aged care home.
I shouldn’t be too surprised, thinking about it further. This musical comes from writers who believed a middle-class family would beat the development of an airport. I wonder what we might think of the Kerrigans today, whose holiday shack in Bonnie Doon would be worth close to half a million dollars. Still, if Working Dog understands that no one in Tasmania wants a sports stadium, it is strange that they produced a musical set entirely in an aged care home and yet are so uninterested in questioning the state of Australia’s aged care system.
For a wholesome-if-forgettable night out with some Australian family comedy and one of the most impressive sets in modern theatre, Bloom is for you. If you want to get a little bit more of what is currently happening on ABC’s Utopia, it is best to look elsewhere.