Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras offers more than a colourful street parade. The accompanying arts festival brings us two new plays dealing with important issues.

In Sticks & Stones, two blokes are on death’s doorstep. Actually, they’ve already knocked on the door, and it’s been answered. At the moment, they’re in a waiting-room. Seems both heaven and hell are crowded and bureaucracy’s everywhere. Occasionally, there are unhelpful announcements by, presumably, the voice of God. Well, her personal assistant. They’ve been assigned numbers. As you might imagine, it’s all a bit disconcerting. For them.

Accidents do happen. Especially when you’re fleeing a difficult client and run out into the Darlinghurst traffic. Next thing you know, you don’t know where you are. But you have to find yourself, if you’re going to be able to pass through to the next stage, which appears to be a bit like passing a camel through the eye of a needle.

One was a male prostitute, the other a homophobic truckie, so now they’re even more discombobulated. The former’s appeal for information is met reluctantly. Like a big truck engine, the latter’s personality means his predisposition to conversation takes a while to reach operating temperature; his disarmament by ‘the pedestrian’ happens gradually. But the tables are soon turned, so that both are held accountable, by each other, to their values, beliefs, principles, inconsistencies and hypocrisies. In the end, their defensiveness and aggressions give way to forgiveness and understanding, forced upon them by the need to move on, or stay forever stuck, and the fact they’re more closely related than they dare admit.

In the end, the premise proves a clever and effective device for showing that, even when distances between people and their outlooks seem insurmountably great, common ground can be found, when forgiveness, compassion and understanding are present. While some of the themes are somewhat clumsily explored and much of the dialogue is expedient (it roams and wanders), it’s nothing a script workshop wouldn’t cure.

Kudos to Jay Duncan, Paul Hooper’s co-star, who conceived the idea and wrote every word. I reserve a distinct kind of admiration actors who, in the absence of work, create it. A double-hander demanding sustained emotional intensity must be exhausting and both wear it well. Hooper, particularly, once warmed-up, really settled in to and relished his role.

Sticks & Stones is made for Mardi Gras and is well worthy of that festival. And you don’t have to be gay to find the themes sobering and their exposition compelling.

Like Sticks & Stones, Canary, at Newtown’s New Theatre, augurs well for the 2011 Mardi Gras. A coterie of characters is played by a smaller coterie of actors, which makes keeping track of who’s who something of a challenge. Similarly, I had a job staying on top of the ins and outs of the plot, which leaps back in forth in time. But even these issues, which might’ve proven overwhelmingly frustrating with a lesser play, pale into insignificance, thanks in no small measure to a fine cast. If there’s one other stumbling-block, it’s that the plays concerns are rooted in the past: Thatcherism is its preoccupation. Yet a reminder of the heinous socioeconomic acts perpetrated under such a regime are always timely. Hopefully, in remaining mindful of the pitfalls, we’ll remain politically aware, awake and vigilant.

Peter McAllum first appears as the apalling Christian campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, founder of the Festival of Light, a pernicious, prying, judgmental band of wowsers and bigots, united under the guise of the Lord. (As you’ll no doubt remember, albeit not fondly, Fred Nile headed-up the franchise here.) Anti-gay; anti-everything. But enough of my rant. The point is Canary points to the fact homosexuals (and women) have been the sociopolitical canaries in the coalmine, perhaps at no time moreso than under the coiffed iron maiden. The opportunistic prejudice stirred up in her cauldron and seized upon by the likes of Whitehouse and the ever-present, always-vicious ratbag right was unforgivable: at the time gay people needed unswerving compassion and support, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, they were most abused.

McCallum has a very different role as Tom. As a young man of a certain generation (pre-boomer), his relative comfort in his own gay skin is both brave and inspiring. But, regrettably, Tom still feels compelled to get the conventional, marital stamp of hetero approval. He enters into a loveless, torturous marriage, enabling him to rise through the ranks of the police force, until he’s outed. This is where the action begins. McAllum is excellent as the older, stitched-up Geordie in a pullover, still striving to keep the wool firmly pulled over the eyes of his colleagues and peers. It takes the tragedy of his gay son contracting AIDS for him to finally find the courage he knew as a young man, this time harnessed to admit his true colours.

Alice Livingstone is little short of downright brilliant as his angry, frustrated wife, Ellie, and does a mighty fine, mighty funny Maggie Thatcher. She has a capacity to convincingly sketch out an emotional range that is daunting, with no hint of faking it or overplaying it. It’s an acting lesson.

Peter Flett brings his rasp to a challenging diversity of roles (six in all), but is particularly nuanced in his reading of Russell, a loving man whose lifestyle and psyche have been shattered by serial losses of friends and lovers, chiefly at the hands of the dreaded virus. He exhibits great sensitivity, with much feeling communicated purely through the way he carries himself, as well as through even more subtle facial expression. Another veritable acting lesson.

Emma Louise also impresses with her range, not least as the young Ellie and as the generous-spirited nurse. As Melanie, Tom and Ellie’s daughter, she is outstanding.

The younger players, in Matt Hyde, Caleb Alloway, Damian Sommerland and Conrad Bron are, to a man, quite spellbinding, playing younger versions of some of the above, as well as various rent-boys, victims and protesters. My only reservation was, perhaps, with the rather melodramatic (on the one hand) and awkwardly comical (on the other) hospital bed scenes, which didn’t quite work for me. And there is something quite gravely self-righteous and humourless about the play, overall, not withstanding the very unfunny subject matter.

All things considered, director Nick Curnow has brought together a very robust ensemble to rekindle a very worthy, if flawed play. It’s a big ask for a small cast: eight actors play 24 roles! The result is poignant, moving, acerbic, amusing and just off the boil.

The details: Sticks & Stones is at the Tap Gallery Theatre until March 4. Canary is at the New Theatre until March 5 — tickets through MTA-Tix.

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