Theatre Review: The Pig Iron People

Bless St Jude and his Players for bringing this charming, humane and funny play to the stage

Presented by St Jude’s Players
Reviewed 11th November, 2021

John Doyle’s first play is part political satire, part affectionate memoir of Sydney in 1996, and part writer-writing-about-a-writer-writing. Bless St Jude and his Players for bringing this charming, humane and funny play to the stage. The time is 2nd March, 1996; it’s election day, and Australia is voting. Labor has been in office for a while; Paul Keating, who took over from Hawke in 1991, is about to get beaten by John Howard today. Residents of Liberal Street, a Sydney inner-city terrace house area, greet new resident, Nick, a bereaved ex-teacher, fresh from therapy and keen to be a writer.

My dad used to speak about “Pig-iron Bob” in reference to Sir Robert Menzies, eminent Liberal Prime Minister. (He was famous for setting off a geopolitical uproar by selling Australian pig-iron to Japan.) The five older characters, all in their sixties, are Menzies-era people, condemning the Hawke/Keating years and seeing John Howard’s right-wing values as just what they – and Australia – need. Doyle, a superb satirist, comedian and screenwriter, holds each of these “pig-iron” people up for examination. In the first act we either despise or underestimate them. In the second act, the playwright sneaks us hints about them which force us to re-evaluate their black-and-white social and political values. In this thread of empathy lies the strength of the writing.

The story is narrated through the continuing voice of Nick, the newly arrived writer. Played by Nick Launchbury with sincerity and simplicity, his point of view – often delivered by breaking the fourth wall –  colours our introduction to his motley bunch of neighbours. Launchbury, looking just right as the bewildered thirty-something chap, has a lovely stage presence. However, his vocal power is appropriate for a mic-ed three-camera shoot. Even in St Jude’s Hall, the ends of his phrases die away alarmingly. He turns upstage to speak to another actor, and his audibility drops. Extra articulatory energy would help. Unfortunately, Launchbury’s character bears the narrative load of show.

All his older neighbours are fortunately much more audible. Lindsay Dunn plays Jack, the irascible ex-Navy cook, with mindless menace, impersonal resentment and an agony of repression. As Jack’s wife, Janette, Joanne St Clair has a difficult task. Her character is the butt of her husband Jack’s stream of abusive comments. (Right-thinking audience members frequently gasped at Jack’s vitriol, thanks to the vigour with which Dunn played him.) St Clair manages to bring the tragic bitterness of her character into each scene, without self-pity or a sense of defeat. She sits sharp as a rock, neither comfortable nor comforting. Claude, the ex-truckie, is played by Jack Robins; he gets an enviable range of acting work. His quicksilver energy enlivens each scene he does, bringing an unexpected complexity to Claude’s sunny character. His pugilism is a feature. Deborah Walsh’s Rosie could have easily been a Pollyanna caricature; she brings sincerity, warmth and heartbreaking sweetness to the role. Completing the neighbourhood is opinionated right-wing German audio engineer Kurt. He is not all that sane. Brian Godfrey plays this cameo with worrying gusto; his bib-and-brace overalls are a sight. In an epic monologue, Kurt does a free-wheeling riff on John Howard’s excellence, whilst warning artists, aborigines, welfare bludgers, gays and assorted multiculturals that their day of wrath is at hand.

Leah Lowe plays April, an ex-TV actress who is anxiously auditioning for work in theatre or film. Because her character is Nick’s contemporary, their opinions on politics and society contrast with their neighbours’, giving Doyle frequent opportunities for sly satiric digs. Lowe looks perfect for her role, but never seems to settle either vocally or emotionally.

Cleverly managing this human menagerie is director Lesley Reed. She understands the humanitarian spine written into this curious script and, aided by a superb set design (see below), gives us a thoughtful and balanced interpretation of a society in the throes of change.

The script of this play requires around seven incidental songs. Musical director Sarah Bradley, with extensive choral and a cappella experience, is an obvious choice to manage this aspect of the piece. Pianist Geoffrey Bennett, playing unobtrusively, accompanies some of these songs. Most songs could have been cut from the show without harming the play’s structure in any way. Dunn’s “Captain of the Pinafore” is heartily rendered. Robins accompanies himself on guitar to excellent effect. Both Dunn’s and Walsh’s unaccompanied songs worked beautifully within the emotional atmosphere of their respective scenes.

Don Oakley’s set design is a gem. His black-and-white quasi-cartoon neighbourhood evokes just a touch of Ken Maynard’s immortal Ettamogah Pub style, while managing to look like the street in Redfern where I used to live in the ‘nineties. The ingenuity with which Oakley utilises each centimetre of the very limited stage space is a lesson for caravan designers. The households from four terrace houses intersect under a utilitarian streetlight. Each space is unique and evocative. This is champagne design on a ginger beer budget.

A sweetly dark farce about people and change, Doyle’s play deserves this airing to remind us today that societal change comes at a price… and we, the people, must always pay.

Review by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:            St Jude’s Hall, Brighton

Season:           11th – 21st November, 2021

Duration:        2.5 hours (including interval

Tickets:            $25:00 (conc. $20:00)

Bookings:              www.stjudesplayers.asn.au or phone 0436 262 628 (Monday-Friday, 9am – 5:30pm).

Disclaimer: Brian Godfrey is the Arts Editor for Glam Adelaide

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