The Ham Funeral – 2012 Adelaide Festival

This is a rare chance to see this once controversial, powerful, landmark play, and when better than in the 100th year since White’s birth and just past the half century since the play was first produced.

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Presented by State Theatre of SA in association with Adelaide Festival
Reviewed Thursday 1st March 2012

In the centenary year of his birth, State Theatre have mounted a production of Patrick White's ground-breaking play, written in 1947, rejected by the Adelaide Festival for the 1962 season as being too hard for people to understand, and so staged instead by the Adelaide University Theatre Guild in 1961. It was presented in Union Hall, which should have been declared a heritage building, but was recently demolished by the University in a grab for cash, replacing it with a science building in order to attract more high fee paying overseas students. This production, fittingly, was also staged away from the main Festival venue, out at the Odeon at Norwood.

Director, Adam Cook, is a great fan of the works of White, has assembled a superb cast, and brought out fine performances from them. Composer, Stuart Day, has created a soundscape that works well with Cook's vision for the play.

The set is initially hidden from view by a curtain. The Young Man appears around it and delivers his prologue before pulling on a rope to lift the curtain, revealing Ailsa Paterson's set, a skeletal rendition of a deteriorating, double story building, with everything in monochrome, including costumes, and even the food and drink. Gavin Swift's lighting seems to add to the dinginess of the scene. It is London, 1919, and we find ourselves in a long neglected boarding house.

Downstairs, the landlady, Mrs. Alma Lusty, speaks to her husband, Will, who responds only with laboured breathing. They are both terribly overweight and he wears only grey, full length combination underwear. They are not an inviting couple. When he suddenly passes away in his chair she decides that the post funeral reception will be a lavish affair, with a huge leg of ham at the centre of the proceedings; “an 'am funeral.”

The central role in the play, of course, is Alma Lusty, a much larger than life character who never leaves the stage. This is a plum role for Amanda Muggleton who gives it her all, and a bit more. White has provided a wealth of opportunities in this role that, unfortunately, does not really flow on to the other characters. Mrs. Lusty is a grotesque creature with vast appetites and Muggleton navigates her way through Alma's grief, loneliness, depression, drunkenness, lust and regret, as though born to play the role.

The role of The Young Man, however, does not have that complexity in the writing. A poet, or aspiring poet, he is supposedly a recluse, keeping himself to himself in his upstairs room, but drawn unwillingly into the doings of the landlady. He is also fascinated by The Girl in the room across the hall, creeping across the hall, listening, and imaging her close to him on the other side of her door exchanging conversation. Luke Clayson does not quite give us the recluse, shunning the company of others. He shows us that The Young Man is somewhat reluctant about being involved, but his portrayal does not quite convince us that he is all that bothered about it. He is at his best in the second act, taking control, throwing out the dreadful relatives and fighting off Alma's amorous advances, or trying to.

Jonathan Mill does very well as the almost comatose Will Lusty, sitting stock still, eyes focussed on some point in mid air in front of him, unblinking. He returns later as one of the unpleasant relatives attending the funeral feast. Jacqy Phillips and Geoff Revell appear as a couple of professional ladies in the bits and pieces business, rummaging through dustbins. For no apparent reason, they add a few songs to their appearances, although what Painting the Clouds with Sunshine or Your Baby Has Gone Down the Plughole (A Mother's Lament) have to do with the play is anybody's guess. The later is a song of the British music hall, so the time and location fits, but the former is from a 1929 American film, Gold Diggers of Broadway.

There are some great performances from Jonathan Mill, Jonathan Elsom, Jacqy Phillips, and Geoff Revell as the relatives but, oh, the overdone white face make-up and those ridiculous costumes that make them look like escapees from Cirque du Soleil. The costumes seem out of place in this production, sitting very awkwardly against the overall dreariness of the location and the action.

Lizzie Falkland plays The Girl living across the hall, idealised in The Young Man's mind as the perfect woman, the object of his poetic desire. At the end of the play, Falkland affects a transformation from a seductive siren to a sneezing, coughing, rather plain bespectacled individual. As he catches sight of her, it is the final straw in his loss of innocence, and he leaves the premises.

This is a rare chance to see this once controversial, powerful, landmark play, and when better than in the 100th year since White's birth and just past the half century since the play was first produced.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

Adelaide Festival – The Ham Funeral
State Theatre – The Ham Funeral

Venue: Odeon Theatre, Norwood
Season: to Sun 18th March 2012
Duration: 140min incl interval
Tickets: $29 to $49
Bookings: BASS 131 246, BASS outlets, or online

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