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Review: Cloudstreet at His Majesty’s Theatre

Review By Tatum Stafford

There’s something incredibly unique about seeing such an iconic Australian story brought to life within one of Perth’s most historic theatres. As I’m sure was the case with many other young Australians, my first interaction with Tim Winton’s iconic novel Cloudstreet came in year 12, when the dauntingly large novel was on my booklist. As many time-poor students are, I remember being sceptical about a book so expansive, and curious as to why it was such a staple in many schools across my home city of Perth.

Set in Perth between 1943 and 1963, Cloudstreet chronicles the journey of the Pickles and the Lambs – two families who live together in house number one on Cloudstreet. Throughout the three hours and forty five minutes’ performance time, the Lamb and Pickles adults and children find and lose love, deal with grief, and combat poverty in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

The Cloudstreet house is one of the most significant characters within this remarkable story. In the book, it’s noted that the house breathes, feels sad, and holds whispers of its former tenants. Similarly, in the play, there are evocative sound effects ringing through the performance space, and direct references to the former tenants; a collection of First Nations girls who were kept there under harsh conditions.

The use of Nyoongar language in this play is incredibly moving and powerful. Two ensemble members, Ebony McGuire and Ian Michael, appeared from the shadows in some of the show’s soliloquy moments to express the agony of those who had come before these two families. It was a brilliant way to ground the piece in its Western Australian roots, and provided a local, cultural insight that is as extremely effective onstage as in the original source material.

The house transforms into a multitude of different locations at the blink of an eye, and has an incredible drainage system inbuilt to handle water scenes in each of the acts. As found in many of Tim Winton’s works, the theme of the water is a spectacle in this show, and serves to reflect the inner desires of one of the play’s more memorable characters, Fish Lamb.

After a tragic accident at the play’s beginning, Fish Lamb (Benjamin Oakes) is intellectually challenged and is a poignant symbol of innocence throughout some of the darker aspects of the play and story. He is portrayed with a brilliant earnestness by Oakes, and interacts with his siblings Elaine (Arielle Gray), Hattie (Ebony McGuire), Red (Mikayla Merks), Lon (Ian Michael) and Quick (Keegan Joyce) with a gleeful optimism that brightens many a scene and garners many a positive audience reaction.

Joyce’s portrayal of the troubled Quick Lamb is a clear highlight of this marathon of a piece. Quick has a peculiar obsession with the dark corners of the world, which he learns about through the newspaper each day. Joyce’s performance is incredibly moving and relatable, and though Quick may make a few rash decisions that impact his family, and Fish in particular, Joyce’s portrayal carries insight and an emotional vulnerability that seeps through the core of the piece.

On the Pickles’ side of the house, Ted (Scott Sheridan) and Chub (Ian Michael) are brilliant comic relief in some of the play’s tense opening moments, and Rose (Brenna Harding) is a breath of fresh air and sensibility within her parent’s troubled marriage and her brothers’ ignorance of her hard work. Harding is extremely likeable in this role, and carries an admirable power to young Rose that brings a sense of justice to an otherwise unlucky situation.

It would be remiss to discuss the Lambs or the Pickles without mentioning the fantastic actors portraying the family heads. Oriel (Alison Whyte) and Lester Lamb (Greg Stone) are a formidable family unit – and even when things go slightly awry in one of the play’s central moments, they unite and provide an excellent example of quintessential Australian parents of the time. Both Whyte and Stone are exceptional in their intentions in these roles, and displayed the ability to impact the emotional reactions of an audience who were hanging on to their every word.

Though a little less idealistic, Dolly (Natasha Herbert) and Sam Pickles (Bert LaBonte) were also a fantastic pair to watch manoeuvre their way through life on a shoestring. LaBonte’s consistent reference to ‘Lady Luck’ and the ‘shadow of luck’ was, albeit frustrating, a testament to his commitment to Sam’s belief system. Similarly, Herbert was a tour de force in this role; commanding presence whenever she so much as lounged on the side of the stage. Her emotionally raw dialogue at the beginning of the third act was extremely powerful, and indicated a shift for the better in this once down on her luck character – much to the audience’s relief.

It felt incredibly special and unique to see a play of this calibre set in the town in which it is based. To know that the suburbs of Subiaco, Nedlands and Dalkeith are just a few minutes away from the theatre, or to be aware of the familiarity in the way the characters refer to Margaret River, grounded this play in a truth and beauty I feel privileged enough to see. It is definitely a highlight of this year’s Perth Festival, and as displayed on its poster outside the theatre, “A once in a lifetime theatrical experience.”

Image Credit: Philip Gostelow

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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