By Flora Norton
Matthew Luton’s Cloudstreet may not be true to the complexity and depth of Tim Winton’s classic but the captivating, comic and thrilling performance comes close to absolving this.
Troubling and emotive, the play tells the story of two families uprooted from their homes and forced to co-inhabit the house at number one Cloudstreet. The house is still haunted by its ugly, unsung history and this takes its toll on the Lambs and the Pickles whose lives begin to unravel as they struggle to make ends meet.
While the Lambs occupy one half of the house (and the stage) and come to terms with the mental relapse of their son Fish (Benjamin Oake), the Pickles occupy the other and the neglected children grapple with their father Sam’s (Bert Labonte) gambling addiction and their mother Dolly’s (Natasha Herbert’s) alcoholism and infidelity.
In a haunting and turbulent sequence of events, traumatised Quick Lamb (Guy Simon) and frustrated Rose Pickles (Brenna Harding) become disillusioned with the unsettling house and their dysfunctional families and leave, each determined to make their own way in the world. Meanwhile, the cheerful and optimistic Lester Lamb (Greg Stone) is gradually corrupted by Sam’s flippancy with money and Dolly’s crude and dubiously seductive charm while his wife comes to terms with Fish’s heart-wrenching estrangement of her.
The two families are plagued by death and misfortune and, unsuccessful in their attempts to jump ship, Rose and Quick both return to find solace in each other and reluctant comfort in the genuine, if somewhat distorted love of their families.
The plot is supported by a truly phenomenal cast whose performances are nothing short of mesmerising. Benjamin Oake’s rendition of Fish Lamb is beautiful and haunting as the boy grapples with the psychological impacts of his accident and the abandonment by his beloved brother. The dismay and empathy experienced by the audience when the Quick leaves, and then the joy and warmth felt when the brothers are reunited is testament to both Simon and Oake’s talent and commitment to the role.
Bert Labonte’s compelling portrayal of Sam Pickle is endearing at times and powerfully frustrating at others as the loving, yet flawed father struggles to hold his dysfunctional family together. His good-natured charm, boyish energy and quick-witted comments wins sympathy of the audience despite his gambling addiction threatening to throw the family into financial ruin. Labonte’s performance is reinforced by the comical Natasha Herbert who plays his crude, cynical and alcoholic wife Dolly. Herbert successfully arouses anger and frustration in the audience as she abuses her children and frequents the pub and the beds of strangers behind her husband’s back. Herbert’s manic laugh, unhinged stature and commanding stage presence make for entertaining yet unsettling viewing.
I’m not one to exaggerate and moments of the play truly sent shivers down my spine, while others had me sinking in my seat, gripping my chair and turning to my fellow audience members in shock and incredulity. Admittedly, the latter moments are primarily caused by the frequent and terrifyingly convincing sex scenes that shamelessly litter the play.
Director Matthew Lutton makes fantastic use of the space and manipulates almost every scene to extract an emotional response from the audience. He creates moments of chilling tension, palpable discomfort and comical relief by placing characters in the background of decisive and important scenes.
The moment when Lester Lamb, portrayed flawlessly by Greg Stone as the kind-hearted and optimistic father, succumbs to the dubious and vulgar charm of his neighbour Dolly Pickle (Natasha Herbert) is disturbing and deeply symbolic of the irreparable damage inflicted upon the two families.
The sex scene is unapologetically graphic and the Lutton’s choice to have the cuckolded Sam Pickle sitting deflated and oblivious at the front of the stage is poignantly effective. The audience hold their breath and cringe as the endearing father figure impulsively betrays his children, his friend and his own principles in a single, excruciating moment of lust.
The birth of Rose’s son performed outrageously well by Brenna Harding is another example of Lutton’s skilful direction. The scene takes place against the back wall of the stage and the audience is forced to endure a few minutes of Harding’s moans and cries. Yet when the sound of the baby crying breaks the tense silence, and Dolly stumbles manically and desperately across to her estranged daughter – the relief and elation felt by the audience is tangible.
Zoe Atkinson works wonders with the set of Cloudstreet and the design of the house with the moving parts, hidden windows and uncanny wallpaper giving it a looming omnipresence that echoes the unnerving personification of the house in the book.
Despite a small cast and limited props, each setting is evocative and compelling, and the actors move seamlessly between boat, pub and house in a single, swift blackout. Atkinson is backed up by an advanced effects team whose skill reaches beyond just sound effects and lighting (which are both used exquisitely).
Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say you can expect to find yourself gaping in disbelief and gasping with awe at frequent intervals throughout the play as the special effects reach almost magical new heights.
So was Cloudstreet a triumph of entertainment? Certainly. An exhibition of remarkable talent from every department? Without a doubt. A play with a convincing and meaningful conclusion which loyally conveys the messages integral to the book on which it is based? Probably not.
I walked into Part 1 having never read the book and without any knowledge of the themes and messages that underpin Winton’s acclaimed classic. I walked out of Part 2 beaming, having been totally captivated by the performance for five hours … but with no more understanding of the plot than I’d entered with.
Despite its countless merits, Cloudstreet fails to deliver on plot and only lazily incorporates the themes of Indigenous history and redemption. The complexity of the novel is transferred messily to the play and many character arcs are well developed but never concluded. The play has the humour, emotion and drama of first-class entertainment but unfortunately lacks the depth or finesse of a classic.
In spite of this, I’ll certainly be recommending Matthew Lutton’s Cloudstreet to anyone keen for five hours of fantastic theatre and I’ll be the first in line at the bookshop tomorrow to buy the original.
Photo Credit: Pia Johnson
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.