By Laura Money
The Blue Room Theatre has a well-deserved reputation for staging original, hard-hitting works by Western Australian theatre-makers. Written by WAAPA graduates Matthew Frank and Dean Bryant (the team who staged the first Australian musical performed in New York City), Once We Lived Here is a true Australian musical. It gives voice to the Aussie identity and sound through a unique soundtrack and penetrating Australian accent.The writers acknowledge that their story doesn’t try to deal expressly with the legacy of Australia’s colonial history. The attitudes of the farmers (as expressed particularly in the ‘history of the farm’ segment) are typical of those whose families have been farmers for generations, so it is not necessarily a flattening of indigenous stories, just an intimate look at one particular family.
The family in the spotlight is the McPhersons – the last of a long line of farmers clinging on to their land. Mother Claire (Sharon Kiely) calls her children home as she is in the final stages of an illness that sees her full of morphine and regret. She sits and reminisces on her porch, looking out into the parched garden and watches her adult kids revert into their childhood dynamic – bickering and teasing each other mercilessly. Eldest child Amy (Taryn Ryan) is the only one to have stayed on the farm. Ryan is a rising star as she depicts the hard worker with her no-nonsense style and gruff exterior with a thread of vulnerability that only the audience sees. Next to arrive is Lecy (Megan Kozak), the middle child whose bold ambition has seen her reject the farming life for the glitz and glamour of the ‘big smoke.’ Kozak’s Lecy is conceited and confident, but her determination to leave her dirty and unsophisticated past is painfully transparent and posed. Youngest son, Shaun (Joshua Firman) is the final child to return – he sits casually on the front porch playing his guitar in a happy-go-lucky fashion. As time goes by, we see that Shaun has many fears and doubts that haunt him. Firman’s smile remains fixed as his face clouds over with shadows in a wonderful portrayal of a young man suffering from anxiety/depression.
Once We Lived Here is perhaps not the most ‘showtuney’ musical. It plays more like a concept album or comprehensive soundtrack. There is a distinct Aussie country twang that runs through. Each character has a distinct song – from Amy’s hard working litany of farming tasks, to Shaun’s mellow folksy wandering style, to Lecy’s almost hyper twittering that blend together under the rich and fading tone of Claire. It’s as though each character is a thread that is woven together to provide the sound of the family.
Wooden pallets, rusted corrugated iron, mismatched yet loved furniture and old barrels comprise the set, complete with wooden swing and a gnarled, dried up painted tree. The set is ambitious as is the musical itself. Taking the epic saga of the McPherson family from its ability to cope with drought, the pull of the big city, community spirit and the death of their father – the children are forced to get along for the sake of their mother, even though being all together again they must re-live that day.
Amy is the lynchpin of the piece – it is her stubborn running of the farm that contributed to her siblings distancing themselves from the family. When old flame and farmhand Burke (Ryan Dawson) shows up, Amy begins a downward spiral of rejection, hurt and betrayal. Dawson is funny as the loveable Burke. Through flashbacks we see just how integral a part of the family he is as well.
Once We Lived Here provides a clear insight into the lives of our ‘Aussie battlers’ – from money concerns to depression, boredom and teen sex, it covers all of the trials and tribulations of the farming life. Firman’s subtle portrayal of Shaun’s depressed and anxious mind is inspired. He wears a happy mask, yet is haunted by the death of his father. His mask slips whenever the shearing shed is mentioned and fully exposed as he reaches the bottom of his despair.
If you want a show that moves you, look no further than Once We Lived Here. It is both epic and intimate in scale, presents the quintessential Aussie sound in a rich tapestry of tradition, family and modern life, and is a love story to boot. Ryan shines as the struggling Amy, brilliantly uncomfortable on stage as a child – that is classy acting, as it is clear that the stage is where Ryan belongs. It’s a charming show – a love story to the Aussie battler that should not be missed.
WHEN: 17 October – 4 November 2017 | 8:30pm
WHERE: The Blue Room Theatre | Northbridge
INFO: Tickets $18 – $28 | Duration 2hrs with 10min interval | Suitable 15+ | References themes of suicide