Review | Laura Money
Themes of spirituality and the river pulse thorough this latest production of Cloudstreet Directed by Matthew Lutton in a collaboration with Black Swan State Theatre Company, The Malthouse Theatre and Perth Festival 2020. The last time this particular epic was tackled it was in a huge warehouse in Fremantle and the performance was split over two days – this time, it’s a far more palatable 5 ish hours. The Pickles and the Lambs have moved into the newly refurbished His Majesty’s Theatre for a night of laughter and tears, love and loss, spirit and community that takes place over twenty years of these two families living side by side. Lutton brings Tim Winton’s novel to life and adds some unique features that prove there is always room for improvement – even on a classic.
Black Swan’s choice of sweeping epic family drama is obviously no accident. Winton himself said at Black Swan’s 2020 Season Launch that he could not have written this novel in today’s climate as it is essentially a work of great optimism and he sees no hope in today’s world, and the 1998 production reflects this sense of timeliness. Lutton and co take a slightly less doom and gloom approach to the play, framing the work around the Noongar story – their words serving as a cautionary tale – do not make the mistake of ignoring the land, water, and those who came before us. Zoe Aitkinson has created a pared back and elegant set which serves as the silent extra character (the house), the simplicity of water and sandstone, the curve of the coast, and of course the stunning real water that trips and pools in the middle of the stage, reflecting back onto the actors. With such a simple set, Lutton must draw upon Paul Jackson’s stark and punchy lighting and Elizabeth Drake’s sweeping score for tension and a local flavour.
Lutton’s bold show pulls no punches – it begins with a sharp hit to the guts in Fish’s ‘lucky’ escape from drowning, the aftermath being why the Lamb family decide to move into Cloudstreet. Representation and diversity is an intergral part of theatre-making in the twenty first century, and this is reflected in the decision to cast Benjamin Oakes in the role of Fish Lamb – Oakes is an actor with an intellectual disability, and in playing Fish, provides poignant dignity to the role. He not only provides light to the show, the charcter does not shy away from some of the uglier parts of society – ostracism, parental love being pushed to its limits, even people being uncomfortable when confronted with disabilty. Noongar actors, Ian Michael and Ebony McGuire provide a voice for the voiceless in framing the story with an Aboriginal voice – a spititualty missing from the novel (well it was probably there but framed as the land) – they act as gatekeepers for the souls of the ghosts and narrate the story throughout. It’s a great technique and ties together an otherwise melodramatic plot with a hint of a higher purpose.
Inter-generational tensions run high as each family works out its dynamic – Mr Pickles (Bert LaBonte) and Mr Lamb (Greg Stone) each represent differing views on masculinity. Whereas Pickles is happy to gamble and take a risk – sometimes to the point of self-destruction, Lamb must work extra hard to keep his family afloat. Both of their wives are no longer able to provide the mothering role, for one reason or another, so we see the men grapple with feeling useless and being relied on simultaneously. There is a touching moment as Stone washes Oakes for his bath and he does so with such tenderness, it is hard to witness his frustration manifest itself in a physical outburst that drives his other son away. Of course the next generation of men, represented by Quick (Keegan Joyce) are not interested in the warmongering violence of their father’s generations. We see Sam Pickles and Lester Lamb physically and psychologically castrated and unable to fight in the war, then see Quick Lamb self-desctructing and creating his own impotence as he attempts to find and kill the Nedlands Monster.
Perhaps the strongest relationship is between mother and daughter – Dolly (Natasha Herbert) and Rose Pickles (Brenna Harding). They have an interesting dynamic, Dolly is loose, gregarious, alcoholic, and dissatisfied with her lot, yet not willing to pack it in, and Rose is introspective, shy, bookish, and unsure how to leave. Tensions run high as Dolly realises that Sam cares for Rose more than her, and that Rose will never respect her. Herbert is phenomenal – she is the stand out actor in a strong ensemble piece. Casually holding her cigarette on her bottom lip, she pouts, pure anger shining in her malevolent eyes as she rips into Harding, who has nothing but contempt in return. Despite the darkness, there are moments of levity which uplift the audience – much like a reflection of Australian history – as the kids all choose their rooms in a new space, go to the beach, celebrate Christmases, weddings, and even deliver pure joy in the form of ice cream to the audience.
Cloudstreet hits you with a wave of nostalgia. From the costuming to the language used, to the refrain of ice-cream shouted in the streets, to Perth landmarks, and sibling rivalry, the work is so painfully nostalgic it has a slight sad tinge to it. In an already nostalgic book (written in the 90s set in the 40s – 60s), Cloudstreet is layered with multi-generation views on family relationships, masculnity, femininity, economics, childhood, innocence, and violence. It marks the end of innocence with its references to real life serial killer, Eric Edgar Cook, and the changing attitudes of Perth – from a big country town to a bustling city. Did we need yet another rendition of Cloudstreet? Probably not, however Lutton’s take on the work is great – it’s an exceptionally entertaining night out, albeit a long one! There are some things that could have been cut, as it does drag towards the end, but ultimately what remains is a sensitive, heartfelt play that speaks to all generations and celebrates life in its purest sense.
WHEN: 21st February – 15th March 2020 | Multiple times
WHERE: His Majesty’s Theatre | PERTH
INFO: Tickets $39 – $149 | Duration 5hrs 25mins | Recommended 12+ | Contains adult material, coarse language, herbal cigarettes, gunshot sounds