Posts Tagged ‘Kings Head Theatre’

Death, Sex and Robots: Three play round-up

May 23, 2018

In the last month I’ve gone to see two plays about robots and one play about grief/death/suicide – Instructions for Correct Assembly (Royal Court), Mayfly (Orange Tree Theatre) and Sex With Robots and Other Devices – and the thematic similarities between the three plays is quite remarkable. All three of them are not, obviously, the same, but the same questions are asked by all three of them, and definitely between two of them, with lesser or greater success. Seeing them all definitely gave me food for thought – I present these crumbs now for you.

Summary: Assembly is an extremely episodic play in which a family buy a robot to replace (in far too many ways) their dead son; Mayfly is about a family (mother, dad, 20sish daughter) coping very poorly with the death of the son/brother (and using a total stranger to help fill the gaps he’s left in their lives); Robots is a series of vignettes of how having a sex robot has affected various individuals and couples. Clearly, the grief element unites Assembly and Mayfly; robots unite Assembly and Robots; but death and loss unite the three. Short summary: Mayfly, while imperfect, is the superior play – I only say this because it is still showing and if you find this commentary interesting you should hurry up and go.

While the couple that opens (and perhaps the couple that ends) Robots is dealing poorly with the loss of a child, (still born, I think), the emotional impact of this is pretty well nil given the 5 minutes or so length of the scenes. Assembly is nearly entirely about grief, a grief that unspools and entangles you within it over the course of its running time. The mom and dad seem to just want a robot around the house for the amusement it provides; but over time, they slip into things like having it call them “mum” and talking about it going to school and getting an education as if it were their actual child. Most tragically, both the mother and father work out their own guilt at their complicity in their son’s death (drugs overdose, I think) by playing out the past with the robot doing or saying what they wish their son had. Sadly, though, the impact of these scenes was frittered away by the generally light and comic tone of the rest of the play; the anger the couple had toward each other and the way they were dealing it was, in my mind, the real story that needed to be told, far more so than “oh how embarrassing to have a robot say something rude at a dinner party.” I left this play convinced that using technology had led to a mistelling of what was a profoundly human story; otherwise it was a bit of a blend of Pinocchio and AI and similarly not very moving.

Between Robots and Assembly, the best technology moments were when people were developing real feelings for what were essentially machines; or when the machines themselves were showing signs of developing feelings themselves. This made me think of the ever popular SF trope of “what makes us human,” which is fun to explore, but honestly neither play went into it at all deeply. However, the scenes in Robot in which a woman was dealing with the mental degradation (dementia) of a robot companion she had had for a long time was starting to show where this show could have been really touching; I could easily have imagined a lovely work of fiction coming out of this. Or just some interesting ways of dealing with Alzheimer’s and also (in the case of this play) a same sex relationship in which one person needed to go into a care home. Unfortunately given the short nature of the scenes this wasn’t developed nearly as well as it could have been, but it hinted at depths that were available to the topic.

Overall most successful of these three plays was decidedly Mayfly. It seemed heavy handed at making its points about how people don’t talk about grief and missing very well (and the ending was nauseatingly writerly); but the trio of damaged family members seemed pretty believable after their initial ridiculousness; each had a manifestation of grief (or several) that seemed quite believable and in which I was able to become emotionally invested. The punch in the gut was in one tiny scene, which is so good I can imagine the playwright building the whole play out from it: in it, the mother asks a stranger to call her, using her dead son’s cell phone, and talk to her, pretending to be him. This is very much looking at how technology is helping us deal with being human; but in this case, I was utterly bought into the tragedy of this scene.

So: sex, death, and robots – in the theater, it’s ultimately the things that show people’s feelings – and weak spots, and illogical spots – that most clearly illuminated being human.

(Mayfly continues through May 26. Robots continues through June 2nd.

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Review -Magic Flute – Charles Court Opera at Kings Head Theater

May 15, 2017

Walking into the King’s Head Theater, I was amazed to see the space fully transformed. The exit doors were still in place, but look! We stood inside a jungle! Creepers twined up the walls, ferns sprouted from the railings, and an inpenetrable canopy of leaves blocked the ceiling from view. Combined with the normal damp and warmth of this enclosed space, it was very much like being in the Amazon … or perhaps somewhere on a mountainside in New Guinea. It was wholly exotic, and a marvellous concept for a Magic Flute. I had no idea what else Charles Court Opera had in store for us, but I was very excited to be finding out!

Our Tamino (Oliver Brignall) was an intrepid English explorer who has been caught by three ladies (Jennifer Begley, Sarah Champion, Polly Leach) who’ve mistaken him for a wild animal. Amusingly, each finds him attractive and hopes to discourage the others so as to get him for herself … but they all scatter, leaving Papageno (Matthew Kellet) to arrive, birdcage in tow, to get the credit for rescuing Tamino.

And then, well, you know, we have the rest of the show, which generally follows closely to the original but has a lot of clever rhymes (occasionally slangy) thrown in that make it a pleasure to listen to – important as we’re not given any supertitles to crib us through it. Being forced to pay attention to what they singers are saying as well as whether or not they hit the notes – well, that was a change! There were occasional problems with following the words – the Queen of the Night (Nicola Said) had particularly bad diction in her spoken dialogue, and occasionally when a character had their back turned to my side of the audience, I couldn’t catch what they were saying – but overall, forcing us to listen, well! I felt like, for once, the audience was really engaged, and not just watching a concert.

A most terrifying Queen of the Night

The Magic Flute, Hannah Sawle as The Queen of the Night, photo Bill Night


Costuming and special effects isn’t really what Magic Flute is supposed to be about, but there was so much charm and surprise in Charles Court’s interpretation that it’s impossible to remain silent on the subject. The use of a trio of bird puppets to discourage Papageno (and Pamina, Emily Jane Thomas) from self-harming … the hysterical creepy giant Papagena puppet … the REAL FLAMES that were brought out when it was time for Tamino to face his trials … the tattoos down the Queen of the Night’s chin … the overall effect, of jungly savage scariness really amplified the dichotomy the story was trying to pull out, of a contrast between light and darkness, between civilization and superstition. And it made it possible for the magic, for once, to seem real. In fact, it was real: it was stage magic of the highest order, done on a cheese paring budget but with all of the “gouda” things left intact. And if you think that pun was uncalled for, well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. This is without doubt the most imaginative interpretation of the Magic Flute I’ve ever seen and the wordplay only made it better. Go!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 12th, 2017. It continues through June 4th and is already mostly sold out so GET ON IT.)

Review – The Chemsex Monologues – Dragonflies Theater at the King’s Head

August 17, 2016

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from The Chemsex Monologues, because, well, despite being a fag hag, I am definitely not on the scene. In fact, when two gentlemen of my acquaintance used the term “chemsex party” just the night before I say this play, I had to restrain myself from leaping in and saying, “What’s this all about anyway?” I mean, obviously, I’m not getting to invited to these parties, but I’m so behind the times I didn’t even know what they were about.

So: let’s start from the beginning. Chemsex parties appear to be events where young gay men (and maybe not so young gay men) go and do lots of drugs – meth (not sure if it’s crystal meth or methedone), maybe Ketamine, something called G (I don’t know what that one means!) – and then have lots of sex while very high with other toned young gay men from the clubs and listening to thumpy music. From the atmosphere described in the Monologues, it’s a late night scene, sometimes involving porn, porn stars and hustlers, and …. well, probably also involving a lot of bad decisions. And some non-consensual sex. And maybe some sex because you feel obligated to because people are giving you drugs.

I think there are probably a lot of people going to this play, though, who are familiar with this scene, either from being in it or being on the fringes of it. I think this play is aimed more at them rather than “tourists” like me – although two of the characters, Fag Hag Cath (Charly Flyte) and sexual health outreach worker Daniel (Matthew Hodson) are definitely on the outside of the scene. They provide some, I think, good perspective on how things look from the point of view of someone who, say, is trying to survive their twenties rather than die having what seemed at the time the best time possible. But we also get the point of view of “the narrator” (Richard Watkins), a rich boy teetering on the edge of making some really bad decisions; and “Nameless” (Denholm Spurr), who’s really deep in the scene and not particularly concerned about next week, much less next year.

Structurally, we’re given the view of the narrator to pull us in; then some really sweet moments with Nameless, which to me captured the euphoria and sparkling sexuality of the good moments of the scene. There’s no denying, Nameless’ monologue about fucking a porn star in a bathroom while drugged out of his eyeballs is written to be blisteringly, squirmingly not; but a lot of that high sprinkled down like snow to chill me with the news that both of them were going to be obligated to have sex with everyone as more or less a cost of entry into the party. I hold consent as a value up there with freedom of religion and free speech, and to be told that these characters didn’t have it anymore just took all of the shiny off of the good time they were having. Still, playwright Patrick Cash’s words were compelling, and I think he made that scene come vibrantly to life: so we, the audience, get to experience a little of that high alongside with a lot of the less joyful moments.

It’s possible that this play is meant to be a discouragement to people who are in the scene to maybe have a think about being sensible with what they’re doing with their bodies (certainly it’s something you’d have to be blind to not take out of this play if you’re seeing it as a representation of reality); but what it also is is a good take on several different experiences with the Chemsex scene, told through interwoven characters that make it easy to keep track of how they all relate to each other. It’s an interesting evening but very raw and not for the faint of heart or easily offended.

(This review is for the performance that took place on August 16th, 2016. It continues through August 20th.)

Review – Mirror, Mirror – Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theater

December 16, 2015

With the wealth of musical talent at their disposal, Charles Court Opera has the ability to make a panto that’s far above the average. They also have a much more diverse audience – with their focus on smaller venues, rather than coming up with ultra family friendly fare suitable for the kiddies, they can have some fun with lots of clever songs and jokes that aim for a higher bar and still have one sold-out night after another. Their confidence and style was perfectly captured in Snow White’s first appearance : silhouetted, stilleto-eted, loudly fêted. Okay, John Savournin was in flats, but still: here was a fabulous dame worth cheering for, all six foot three of her.

As Snow White, Mirror Mirror took quite a few diversions from the typical story: Snowy isn’t a virginal lass abused by the evil queen and saved by the huntsman; no, she’s a sexy widow (of Barry White, natch) who’s buried herself in domestic service (to dwarves) to escape her loneliness. Then along comes a prince with a fortune (Amy J Payne), and suddenly Queenie (Nicola Jolley) and Snow are in competition….

The jokes came thick and plentifully. Actually some of them would have used that line as a lead in to a gag: God knows, “My perfume? It’s called ‘Come to me’,” and its punchline were probably both old as the hills and entirely unsuitable for a family audience: it nearly unseated the prince and I can’t bear to repeat it. More clever (but not as hysterics inducing) was a bit at the beginning where Mrs. White is bleeped as she introduces the dwarves, then is obliged to tell us that due to the fear of being sued, most of them will need to be known my humorous approximations of the more famous monikers given to them by a certain Hollywood animation giant. This all leads into a great schtick in which Matthew Kellet comes on as each of the dwarves, wearing an only-slightly modified costume for each. (Ultimately this is a set up for a great sight gag at the end. These are some clever people. I won’t tell you what it is so you can enjoy it.)

To shake up the story a bit, Savournin has given the queen several more opportunities to interfere in Snowy’s househould, including spell casting (to the dismay of the prince’s valet, Andrea Tweedale, whose superb singing voice made me wish she’d been given a bigger part), a fatality-inducing DIY episode (never did Disney have the queen depicted as a plumber), and then finally, well, something with an apple, but the entire plot was being deconstructed into something about lost love and would Snow ever get over Barry.

It was all extremely ludicrous and even better because of the fabulous song craft, which skewered, “My Heart Goes Boom,” “Candle in the Wind,” and “You Make Me Feel (like a natural woman)” sung in such a deep voice I was starting to cry. And there were horrible puns, a candy toss, a sploosh scene, and enough political jokes to keep us on our toes. Could there be a more perfect panto? I’d buy tickets for next year’s today if they were on sale now.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 12, 2015. It continues through January 9th.)

Review – The Zoo and Trial by Jury – Charles Court Opera at the King’s Head Theatre

April 24, 2015

I’d hear a little about Trial by Jury before Charles Court announced its production – but it seemed a clarion call to work on my Gilbert and Sullivan completism – after all, as a forty minute long one act, Trial By Jury doesn’t seem to get produced very much. And I’ve been feeling very warm about Charles Court Opera, given the three home runs in a row of Patience, Ruddigore and their extremely silly panto that proved the unexpected highlight of the Christmas season. So why not see a double header? And, to my surprise, a theater loving friend in Brighton declared herself so excited by the whole thing that she decided to come up to see it with me, for a Sunday evening show! What could go wrong?

The first piece, The Zoo, was fluffy to near astronomical heights. There was not much of a plot – a pharmacist (David Menezes) in love with a girl (Catrine Kirkman) whose father (Matthew Kellet) resents him for misprescribing a medicine: a peer (John Savournin) whose secret delight is to woo the woman (Nichola Jolley) who mans the refreshment stand at the zoo – these characters meet at the zoo, where the pharmacist is somewhat inconveniencing the other lovebirds by attempting to hang himself. While the songs were fun to listen to, it seems almost churlish to not focus on the hysterical performances given by the performers while (frequently) not singing. Jolley’s cockney accent was killing me, but OOH Savournin packing his face full of cake and eclairs was a sight to see, a veritable side show in itself. The level of mugging was truly epic. We were in stitches. And, er, the singing was very enjoyable as well, but this was absolutely one to see live.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get funnier, we came back from the interval to the chaos of The Trial. Apparently the whole thing was set up as a Jeremy Kyle spoof (I was, but what was absolutely slaying me was the peculiar quiver Catrine Kirkman was giving to her upper lip as “the plaintiff,” a chavtastic bridezilla with a nine-month bump to match the chip on her shoulder. She managed an amusingly nasal tone to her voice, but thankfully as better singing was called for (and less comedy), she gently dropped the facade and let it rip, showing her fine pipes to our pleasure (if to the disadvantage of her character but we can’t really have bad singing now, can we?). Meanwhile there was so much other stuff going on that the main story about the husband to be who jilted her was slipping into the background in favor of, for example, the massively camp performance of John Savournin as The Judge, and the hysterical peeping of Matthew Kellert as the clerk who is offering to save “the plaintiff” from her fate. You couldn’t have possibly kept up this much gurning and goofing around with a longer show, but as forty minutes of in-your-face comedy, it was just hysterical. Side by side with The Zoo, it was like having dessert twice in a row, but I just couldn’t complain because I was laughing too much.

(This review is for a performance that took place the evening of Sunday, April 19, 2015. It continues through May 10th.)

Mini-review – Trainspotting – In Your Face at King’s Head Theater

March 26, 2015

It’s hard to believe that In Your Face Theater could be so brave as to take on Irvine Welsh’s incredibly unattractive picture of junkie life and try to make it into a consumable piece of theater. But so they have done, and with enough success at Edinburgh that they brought it down to London to give us non-festival types the chance to enjoy it on our home turf. (There’s a bit where the characters make fun of people clogging the streets of Edinburgh during the Fringe: I can’t help but wonder how it would have gone over with the original audience.) It’s all been condensed to just over 65 minutes to boot, which made me wonder how coherent it would all be.

In fact, there’s so much packed into this show that one hour feels almost like too much, given that it’s sensory overload from the minute you walk in, glowstick bracelet snapped around your wrist, and have to push your way through the dancing crowds filling the theater and try to find a perch where you can watch the show safely. But no place is really safe, as the cast members plop down next to you, stand in front of you (and shout at you, or make fun of you quietly), toss wet, dirty laundry overhead and generally act like it’s THEIR place and YOU’RE the invader. Which we are, kind of, since most of us are people with enough money to spare to go out to the theater and none of is (likely) are dealing with a life-altering drug addiction.

If you’ve seen the movie (or read the book), you’ll remember a lot of key scenes, like the ones with the filthy toilet, the dead baby, and the ruined bedclothes; but everything is made far more visceral with actors who easily get their kit of and smear themselves with all sorts of repugnant liquids in order to make what they’re doing feel real. I felt distinctly uncomfortable in many of the scenes, especially the violent ones, or the ones that hinted at violence; the actors were mostly ignoring us but we’d tiptoed past the fourth wall and things were all feeling a little bit too real. I even had to look away at the shooting up scenes; brrrrr.

While I remember a sense of giddiness and hysteria from the film, this play left out all of the hallucinations, visceral raw joy, and glorious drug highs, giving us, instead, fat doses of the squalid reality the characters are inhabiting. At the end, then, I think we were supposed to have a sad, broken feeling about the lead character’s best friend dying; but, for all that he’d been built up to be a decent person, it seemed impossible to feel anything for someone so hell bent on destruction and stupidity. Trainspotting, as a play, is a more real, meaty, horrifying experience than the movie ever was, and believably summoned the ghosts of the junk dens I knew in Arizona, long long ago, and all of the lovely, intelligent, life-loving people that never made it out of them. It’s a sixty-five minute flashing-lights, violent, shit stained roller coaster ride: an excellent, full body experience – but I felt a sense of relief when we were finally allowed to escape into the damp night.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, March 24th, 2014. It continues until April 11th. Some days it’s even on four times in a row: respect!)

Review – Between – Fourword Productions at King’s Head Theater

August 7, 2014

After seeing a run of gay themed plays at the Above the Stag theater, I was surprised to be contacted out of the blue (or out of Twitter more precisely) and asked if I wanted to review a gay-themed play at the Kings Head Theater\ – a show that had been already been to Edinburgh but was going to be making its debut in London. So I said yes and waited for Between (and its South African creators) to arrive for late night quickie in Islington. (All of the performances are at 9:30 PM and it’s only 50 minutes long so I feel this is both an accurate description and an irresistible bit of innuendo.) I normally won’t do shows that start that late, but this show seemed promising – anything that’s toured this much has decidedly got something going for it – and I wanted to find out exactly what in person.

The play is a two hander with multiple story lines – I was told three but I wasn’t entirely sure if they were actually two or possibly even just one set of characters at different points in their lives. There were two pubescent boys discovering their sexualities together (and dealing with what it meant to be told you were gay, or to actually do sexual activities with a member of the same sex); a couple reaching the end of their relationship and (I thought the same couple) a teacher and a pupil who develop a connection through their work together. This final story line involved endless readings of sonnet 23 which, at its peak, nearly had me in tears: a delicious, delightful chance to see acting methodology and approach discussed on stage.

My heart was also breaking watching a long term couple break up, but, despite the crush my heart felt, these scenes were least engaging; I think I was having a disconnect between watching these two characters get together early on (as actor/teach) then watching them fall apart and trying to figure out where the cracks came in; in retrospect (and only after a discussion with one of the authors) I think the reason I couldn’t get the matchup – which only was clear to me when the student shakes his teacher’s hand after getting cast in a role – was that this romance actually was one that didn’t happen.

Most fascinating, though, was watching Oskar Brown and Nicholas Cambell as two young men reading porn and fantasizing about sex together. These scenes were also undeniably hot – because what we in reality had were two really good looking adult men in front of us behaving sexually in a convincing way – but also extremely original and painful. I’ve never seen a play that made a real stab at showing how teenagers behave behind closed doors (Romeo and Juliet leaves out a lot), but Closer really, really got it right … the fantasizing, the questioning, and, to be honest, the lying, headgames, and repercussions all rang 100% true at a level that reminded me of Judy Blume and other fiction.

While the script isn’t perfect, the performances are very good, and, let’s be honest, seeing sexy men strip off and kiss is a bonus for most performances in my book. Was it hotter inside the theater or out? On this August night, the boiling air was rolling out from the stage door.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 5th. It continues Tuesday-Saturday through August 23rd.)

Review – Diary of a Nobody – Rough Haired Pointer at The King’s Head

August 1, 2014

It’s depressing to go to a show based on a literary classic and find yourself wiggling in your seat, going, “But I just don’t get it!” It’s even more depressing when said show is not just an original adaptation, but is transferring from another venue. Clearly a whole lot of people have enjoyed Rough Haired Pointer’s Diary of a Nobody, but I wasn’t one of them.

The story is slight – deliberately so (for comic effect): a clerk (Jamie Treacher, although voiced by all of the actors at different times, as this is the narrator) has a quiet little household in North London (Holloway, actually) where his lives with his wife (Jordan Mallory-Skinner) and a few house servants (frequently played by George Fouracres). Their simple lives of meals, home improvements, and bad puns is interrupted by the return home of their adult son (Geordie Wright), who seems unable to hold down a job and not concerned by this.

And then … I don’t know, hijinks ensue? Mostly, it seems like very little happens, other than our narrator making himself out to be rather self important and his son acting like a git, but I just really didn’t find it very funny, except for when the actors were corpsing (it was a preview so I presume some details were ironing out) and of course when an egg was thrown to the ground and bounced. Now THAT really got me going!

But I was so enamored of the look of this play that it seems churlish of me to give this show a purely negative review. All of the set decor, props, and costumes were done in a uniform style of drawn lines on white that I thought made the show unbearably entrancing to look at, like a live action cartoon. Nearly the only breaks in color are red from a painted bathtub and some lobsters – and some colored bells. There is also a very rich soundtrack, nearly at the level of a radio drama, which I felt added a lot of atmosphere (and occasionally a sense of impending doom) to the production. My feeling is of a production company that is probably going to be doing things I will like – but not this show. I have bought a copy of the book and will see if, after reading it, I am illuminated about the jokes that I clearly just did not get.

Be advised that if it’s a hot day out, you’re going to be quite warm in the theater: iced drinks are highly recommended, but not too many as the first act ran nearly 1:10 the night I went and the show was not finished until after ten. Your running time may vary.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. Diary of a Nobody continues through August 24th. It runs in rep: see the King’s Head Theater’s website for details.)

Review – Patience – Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theater

June 24, 2014

I was absolutely willing to pass on seeing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at the King’s Head Theater, despite it being the one I can sing along to all of the songs, because, well, I just didn’t have much faith in it not being … well, stodgy. I loved the Union theater’s all-male Patience in 2012, but that was just Sasha’s magic at work, right? The last thing I wanted was some historically pure production that sent me off to nap land, no matter how much dragoon guards and aesthetes make me giggle.

But then I heard it was a Goth Patience. And suddenly, it seemed so much more relevant to not just my life but to modernity. The whole “twenty lovesick maidens” who go around being woeful and in love with a total loser poet seemed so absolutely right for this script. And Goth has a lot in common with the aesthetes, especially if you feel like poking a bit of fun at people who take what they wear a bit too seriously. I wasn’t sure how they were going to work in the whole “Patience is a milkmaid” thing but it all seemed very promising and I scooted out and got tickets for my next available free night.

As it turns out, this was a very appropriate adaptation that took the characters of the shallow, fashionable women (and men) and found a perfectly reasonable excuse for them to be among us for, surely, people who value looking a certain way over personal accomplishments are just as present in modern society as they were in Oscar Wilde’s time. It was all set at the Castle pub (a Camden Goth hangout), and Patience herself had changed from a lowly milkmaid to a tan, outdoorsy barmaid … exactly the kind of person Goths would snub. The only clash was the Dragoon guards … I found it hard to believe a bunch of soldiers would ever be the sweethearts of a pack of Goth chicks, but, well, disbelief must be suspended: however, when they came back all in their best version of Goth garb (so to better woo the ladies), the one dressed as a mime had just so clearly got the whole thing wrong that I burst out laughing. Yes, it seems mostly right, just using black and white face paint does not a Goth make.

The singing was very good, with the performers uniformly seeming to have operatically trained voices. However, I got the feeling that maybe Gilbert and Sullivan wasn’t their forte – the songs, to me, would have benefitted from a bit less vibrato and a bit more patter practice. That said, the words were mostly clear, and the “updates” (such as referencing Frank Sinatra, Primark, and Nietzche) made the show even funnier.

Overall this was a very lively evening and well worth the small investment in time (just over two hours with a 7:15 start ensuring I got home at a decent time), especially at the affordable ticket price. Thank you for a fleshly show, of full comedy!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, June 19th, 2014. It continues through June 28th.)

Review – Once We Lived Here – TheatreUpClose at the Kings Head Theater

April 13, 2014

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.)