Surely if I asked you to think of an Australian musical, you’d come up with something silly – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or maybe a localized version of Mamma Mia – something involving brews, beaches, and barbeques. I was surprised, then, to find that Once We Lived Here, winner of the “Best New Australian Musical” (and currently receiving its European premiere at the King’s Head) was set on a failing farm in the middle of the Outback. It’s got every trapping of a tragedy – Mom’s dying (we get this in the first scene so I’m not spoilering it), the kids are gathering together to say their goodbyes – but it’s still incapable of being grim. It wants to be hopeful and plucky and practical, and to have a sense of humor, and to make some jokes about sex. And it wants to tap into that grand pioneer spirit, that sort of nobility of people who try to wrest a living from the land are assumed to have by city folk, and do it all with some modern-poppy-esque tunes to drive it.
I admit to getting sucked into the story pretty quickly – Claire, the cancer-ridden mom (Simone Craddock) is intensely likeable, and I couldn’t help but wonder how her various kids – smart but shallow city-girl Lacy (Belinda Wollaston), dreamy but damaged Shaun (Iestyn Arwel) and grumpy, “take care of everyone” Amy (Melie Stewart) – were going to clash/fall apart in the light of the impending family tragedy. Unsurprisingly, when you put three adult children together, all of their past issues come right back to the surface again in spite of what bigger problems they ought to be looking at. The show adorably switches them all back to their teen and pre-teen selves so that they can show family history (a feat nicely accomplished with some minor hair and costume changes), giving us the opportunity to discover that they have actually dealt with – or, rather, failed to deal with – a lot of tragedy already. And then there’s the hired hand, Burke (Shaun Rennie). Just what kind of a relationship did he have with the various members of the family?
While the problems this show looks at – lies, repression, sexuality, what it means to give up your dreams, depression (and so on) – are really meaty fodder, it seems almost incapable of getting to the kinds of depths it needs to go to to do the material justice. Sexual competition between sisters, facing death directly, using people to your own advantage – somehow Once We Lived Here doesn’t manage to plumb any of these depths. Instead, it skates around successfully when dealing with fairly light topics (city versus country life, not succeeding as an artist, having a crush on someone who doesn’t like you back) and just uses the “hard stuff” to add the illusion of depth – kind of like the way Canaletto would sketch in windows with two lines and let your eye do the rest. It seems like Once We Lived Here is going to be about the painful hard stuff of life, but it’s really not: in fact, the high point of the show is when it just completely gives up on being serious and the cast does a musical number that’s supposed to be from a talent show the kids performed in when they were little (“[Things Are Fucked And] We Like It That Way”).
Still, I found this show very enjoyable. Farmers’ problems are standard around the world, but the situation of a farm where the daughter has decided she’s going to run it to carry on her dad’s legacy (and the family heritage) was one that was unique while appealing to a universal sentiment. Squabbling siblings are also good show fodder; the personalities were drawn very sharply and I thought had a very modern feel to them. And the songs were just … well, good harmonies, no strange modern atonal crap, moving forward the story and the characters.
I’d say you couldn’t ask for more, but I will: I wanted Amy to be more richly drawn, and I wanted to see more of the backstory of Claire and what her life was like with her emotionally distant husband. The bookwriter (Dean Bryant) took the easy road, I think, and I would have rather had two plays, maybe one a bit of a comedy (this one) and one a pretty damned hard story (Clair’s story), with more time for Amy to get rounded out. This story was tied up pretty neatly in about two hours thirty, but too many threads were developed and left fallow (and the ending was too pat). There’s more story here; why not get out there and write the prequel? Your audience is waiting!
(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, April 10, 2014. It continues through April 26th.)