Review by Emily Smith
In a dilapidated, burn-out theatre an eclectic group of inspiring actors come together to rehearse an opera about love, while on day trips from their psychiatric hospital next door.
Like many of us, I studied Così in high school, and, then as now, I searched the play for deep truths about love, war, and humanity to show off my intelligence, when really I just enjoyed the antics of the patients and their bizarre circumstances.
Set in 1971 at the height of anti-Vietnam War protests in Australia, Lewis the recent university graduate tries to reconcile putting on a play about love and fidelity while his politically radical friends berate him for not focusing on more important issues, like peace and social change. I have always thought Così’s charm comes from its refusal to make sweeping political statements or take a concrete viewpoint; it shows people in their naturally messy states, with (mostly) good intentions but wildly different ways of interacting with the world. The world of Così is not black and white but a whole rainbow of weird and wacky colours, and The Midnite Youth Theatre Company totally gets that.
Sarah Duyvestyn’s set made use of the already black walls of the Blue Room to create the sparsely decorated burnt theatre, with only a couple of mannequins and drop-sheets for the main props. It seems bleak and uninspiring but like the patients we had to use our imagination to see the possibilities of the room, and it came to life as they worked on their show. Kalika Duck’s direction meant every inch of the space was used, so even with an average of eight people on stage at once it never felt crowded or overwhelming.
The show is a truly ensemble piece, every member of the cast bringing nuance and warmth to their characters, and playing their quirks to great comedic effect.
Protagonist Lewis is far more frustrating in his ineffective direction and wet fish personality on stage than on the page, and Ed Stoddard perfectly captured that nervous bewilderment which gave his actors space to cause havoc.
Caleb Macaulay brought great depth to quiet, PTSD-stricken, ex-lawyer Henry, whose transformation from withdrawn stutterer to righteous anti-Communist and Lewis’ unexpected defender was touching.
Dan Clayton’s theatre-aficionado Roy gave just the right amount of controlling diva attitude balanced with self-doubt to be insufferable yet sympathetic. Occasionally the cast struggled with projection but Roy’s convoluted witticisms were always perfectly delivered by Clayton, and I couldn’t help laughing at his creatively mean insults for Lewis’ leadership.
Tom Chatfield’s pyromaniac Doug always got a laugh, especially his constant bickering with Ellie Freeman’s Cherry, who has perfected the art of the manic grin.
The company’s pianist Zac swung between comatose and manic, depending on how recently he had broken into the pharmacy, and Sam Robins put so much vivacity into his rants about Wagner’s music I found myself rooting for him to play the overture his way. Robins played the keyboard live on stage for scene transitions, still in character with a drug-addled stoop over the keys, and his delight when he got to play the piano-accordion was infectious.
Ruth was the ward’s resident OCD patient, obsessing over how many steps to take per scene, and seeming very much a fish out of water in her business attire. When I read the play I found her compulsive interruptions irritating, but Tatum Stafford played her with a vulnerability and a knack for comedic timing that made her one of my favourites. Stafford and Macaulay have both perfected the tense stare of the amateur actor trying to get their lines and movement right, making the show within the show at the end much funnier than the original was probably intended to be.
Special mention has to go to Tiandra Seal and her hyperactive hands, whose exaggerated gestures and black humour made Justine the perfect patronising social worker, complete with garish blue eyeshadow and grating laugh.
The youth of the cast set the uncertainty of the characters’ positions in life in a different light, emphasising how lost Lewis is out of university, and how each character is still figuring out the world around them. This sense of seclusion comes partly from Jay Waugh’s 70s costume design, where he didn’t hold back on the flared jeans and knitted ponchos. Psychedelic prints and big earrings reminded us of the ‘make love not war’ time period of the show, and a couple of costume changes allowed us to see the whole gamut of groovy fashion, made weirder by the inpatients’ tendencies to pair their outfits with slippers or hospital gowns. Each costume was a delight to see.
The Midnite Youth Theatre Company have put on a charming, thoughtful, and heartwarmingly funny show, proving Lewis right that not all theatre has to make grand political statements to be important.