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Review: Once in Royal David’s City at the New Theatre

By Rosie Niven

It’s Christmas time in Byron Bay, Australia, and theatre Director Will Drummond is plagued with uncertainty. Everyone seems to be having a crisis of faith, he’s faced with the loss of loved ones, and the pressure of creating the perfect Christmas for his mother is causing him to question what’s really important to him.

Michael Gow’s Once in Royal David’s City has been described as an epic saga, a theatrical journey across four decades and two hemispheres which offers a reflection on death, memory and the future of Australian theatre. When Will takes his mother Jeannie to Byron Bay for Christmas to help her cope with the loss of her husband only a few months earlier, she falls ill almost immediately and we find out she has pancreatic cancer, watching the cycle of loss take place all over again. While Will reflects on his own life and his relationship with his mother, he delights the audience with the memories of events that have made the greatest impact in his life, from getting lost on a beach at 6 years old to studying groundbreaking theatre in Berlin. From minute memories to the grandiose, we watch Will’s entire life unfold before us as we simultaneously watch his mother’s end. In only 100 minutes, that’s a lot to unpack.

Such a saga requires incredible attention to detail and a sharp ensemble to help us transition between thoughts, memories and the present, especially with Victor Kalka’s stripped back set that exposes the stark brick of New Theatre and all of the props crammed into corners. What was missing for me in this production were stronger design choices - there was clear consistency throughout the decades that gave us something familiar to hold onto as we followed Will’s story, but this consistency meant it was unclear where we were at any given time. Sound Designer Ryan Devlin created some particularly fun moments for the audience however with exciting renditions of Christmas songs that were performed by the entire ensemble, inciting the audience to dance along and breaking out into laughter.

Unfortunately the ensemble felt under utilised, with many actors hovering onstage for scenes at a time before rushing to help with a set change to only move back to their waiting spot. Many moments where this energetic ensemble could have been used to lift the storyline and break up longer, drier scenes were missed, leaving us waiting for something more. Many intimate moments would have benefited from a smaller theatre, with the stark space alienating the audience from some of the peak emotional scenes. It felt at many points that the actors had to take great lengths to cross the space in time for their lines, which distracted from the actor that was speaking at the time.

Once in Royal David’s City was a huge undertaking for Director Patrick Howard, and it is clear that Michael Gow’s story was an important one for him to bring to the stage. Leaving the theatre, I felt that more rehearsal was needed, as well as greater cohesion across the entire team, for this to be a successful production.

Photo Credit: Bob Seary

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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