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Review: Toy Symphony at The Loading Dock Theatre at Qtopia Sydney

Review by Kate Gaul

Michael Gow’s “Toy Symphony” premiered in a blistering production at Belvoir in 2007. I was fortunate to see that and another version of the work under the title “Writing for Performance – A Personal View” at NIDA in 2014 directed by Gow himself.  In both instances I remember it being magical and extremely moving.  A “Toy Symphony” is a musical work dating from the 1760s with parts for toy instruments, including toy trumpet, ratchet, bird calls (cuckoo, nightingale, and quail), Mark tree, triangle, drum and glockenspiel. It has three movements and typically takes around seven minutes to perform. In Gow’s play, it is the first effort at playwriting by a young Roland Henning.

We meet the older Henning. He has writer’s block. When he tries to explain the situation to a therapist, his story begins to tumble back and forth between his childhood in The Shire and his work as a playwright. At the root of it all is a bad day at primary school which shattered his boyhood and plunged him headlong into the dizzy circus of life and art.  “Toy Symphony” is a wrestle between the highs and lows of being an artist and the sheer exhilaration of the creative act.

Queensland’s Ad Astra Theatre Company now present the work in the newly minted venue on Taylor Square. The production is often a little too busy as it mistrusts the audience’s ability to sit inside Roland Henning’s head especially in the scenes with his therapist. The play rewards us with its sheer theatricality as the story evolves and memories surface. These scenes are worth the wait. Bernadette Pryde is outstanding as ray-of-sunshine schoolteacher Mrs Walkham.  Her experience, grace and sense of timing are gold. Gregory J Wilken plays Henning with both poignancy and vicious bastardry as required and is supported by a strong ensemble. Memorable amongst the ensemble cast are Adam Dakin as friend Nicolajs.  Production design (uncredited) comprises a series of stacked suitcases (personal baggage?) where props are revealed, and memories released.  It’s a clumsy design and gets in the way of the action rather than supports it.  Directed by Michelle Carey the production moves as seamlessly as it can but does suffer from not really having landed in this new and untried space.

But the star of the evening – it must be said – is the Loading Dock Theatre itself. Developed and managed by Qtopia Sydney this is another welcome addition to Sydney’s list of theatres along with the resonant and exciting Sub Station space (also on Taylor Square). Qtopia Sydney is devoted to the memory, education and celebration of the unique histories and lived experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Quoting from the wall plaque: “The space in which the Loading Dock Theatre now resides was certainly never intended for theatrical purposes… and was once a “loading dock” in its truest sense – a space lined with bricks and bars where police cars and a prisoner tram – Tram No. 948 – would pull up and push those in their capture through to the cells… nor was it deigned to house the rich, diverse, authentic and powerful stories of both the LGBTQIA+ and wider communities.  And yet, here we are. On the shoulders of the giants who came before us.”

It is fitting that the first production in the space is from one of the giants of Australian playwriting.  Michael Gow’s “Toy Symphony” reminds us that we should embrace creativity and difference with compassion and patience. And that there can be a little bit of magic in everyone!

Image Credit: Bojan Bozic


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