Jan 31, 2013

REVIEW: The Small Poppies | New Theatre, Sydney

David Holdman's 1986 play is showing its age. This new adaptation at New Theatre promised to bring it back to life -- but the script was too sluggish.

David Holman’s 1986 play The Small Poppies, currently at New Theatre in Sydney’s Newtown, is looking a little too much like a 1986 play — politically and theatrically. Directed, valiantly, by Felicity Nicol, it’s a play crying out for adaptation, to bring it into line with contemporary political realities. And it wouldn’t be hard.

Transpose Cambodian refugees for Afghans or Iraqis, for example, and you’re well on the way. It works for me, as I’m old enough to well remember the wave of Cambodians, that have since graced our shores with their gentle presence and syncretic Khmer culture. But there will be younger viewers, one presumes, who may well miss the context. The first day of school is traumatic enough for any child, but for one who’s new to the country, not just the primary phase of her education, it must seem doubly so.

Lep’s reticence doesn’t only stem from her ESL status, but from the likelihood she’s narrowly escaped something quite awful. I’m unsure as to what precise time frame, if any, Holman had in mind for his play. But if it was, say, ten years prior to its published appearance, a girl like Lep was probably fleeing the Khmer Rouge, who’d newly taken power. A few years later, starvation and an advancing Vietnamese army were new threats. Not very many years after that, there were border conflicts to avoid. Hopefully, teachers and parents might enrich and deepen the experience through historical contextualise.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see Belvoir’s turn-of-the-millennium production, directed by Neil Armfield, starring the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Deb Mailman and Max Cullen as five-year-olds. Sure sounds like a hoot. But beyond hoot, I reckon this is not necessarily all the play it’s cracked up to be and is a little more protracted than it ideally ought to be. And again, it’s not just the particular political backdrop that’s looking a little out of kilter. For baby boomers such as I, a “wog” who had stinky Hungarian salami sandwiches in his lunchbox and routinely suffered the sling and arrows of outrageous “oh, poo!”s, scenes in which Lep, being curious about the burgeoning bully Shane Miller’s lunch (a pie), offers her own in a gesture of exchange aren’t lost.

But what of the class of 2013? I suspect kids are now as likely to be eating vindaloo as a Vegemite sandwich on white and vanilla slice, or paella, as much as a pie. And I’ll bet none blinks, let alone proffers erky-perkies or turned-up noses. They probably hanker to swap.

The structure of the play is lively, in essence, and in parts lives up to that promise. But, at other times, it drags and idles. This, for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to me, intrinsic to the play. Secondly, there’s no real rhythm to the performance. And it cries out for it.

Having bleated about the partly temporally-induced shortcomings of the play itself and confessed reservations about its direction, there is much in its favour. New Theatre has a habit of and knack for coming up with ingenious sets, on a shoestring, and The Small Poppies is a case in point. Andrea Espinoza concept is even, apparently, environmentally-friendly it looks to be constructed (almost) entirely of recycled, recyclable cardboard. It has a storybook quality to it. It resembles a house as a five-year-old might perceive or render it. Play School-ish. Backlit (Sian James-Holland know how to evoke the warmth and glow of home and hearth) and quite magical. Windows pop open between scenes, through which jokes are told. You know the kind: “Knock-knock! / Who’s there? / Boo. / Boo who? / If I had a face like yours, I’d cry too!”

Shondelle Pratt (herself a luminous actor) is credited as choreographer. I’m assuming that encompasses all movement on stage and, if so, she’s done a surpassing job, for all the actors move authentically like children of ’roundabout the deemed age. It’s one of the key successes of the production and carries a good deal of the comedic burden. Similarly, Con Nats has enabled Daniel Csutkai to take on an authentically Greek-sounding accent, as Theo’s dad, just as Maryline Hang Choo has helped cast with Khmer.

Ben Hunter, as Clint, is thrown for six when bestie Courtney moves house and, thus, is assigned to another school. It weighs heavily on him and quells his eagerness and excitement. When he claps eyes on orphan, Lep, however (and with not-so-gentle encouragement from his principal, the walksocked Mr Brennan), his innate compassion flares and he sees his chance to give himself to a new friend. Hunter measure his performance superbly: we get to see the Clint he presents to the world and his inner world. Rosie Lourde does shyness brilliantly, too. She acts with her eyes as much as anything and it’s surprising how much of her character is readable through them.

A little bird told me Nick Atkins was cast only two weeks out, due to the shoot-through of another actor. This makes his performance all the more mind-blowing, since, as Theo, is not just the epitome of an energetic, outgoing kid, he almost is the kid. His facial and physical expression could viably constituted as Acting Like a Five-Year-Old 101; perhaps a summer school course at NIDA. He also does a splendid caricature of the old-school head.

Danielle Baynes is strong, also, as Clint’s mum. It’s an especially comical pairing, since Hunter dwarfs her. In fact, he picks her up, rather than the other way ’round.  The aforementioned Csutkai is endearing as Theo’s dad: he even seems to have cultivated a particular gait for the character. He’s not quite so adorable as the cruel Shane Miller, which is just the point. Sarah Hansen stands out as Mrs Walsh, the patient, well-intentioned, if hamfisted and blustering, teacher, athough I felt her character was overdone on the page and, therefore, tends to give that impression on the stage as well.

A bit more pace and a rework of the script are what’s needed to elevate a strong production to an almighty one. On the whole, the cast and crew get a shining school report though.

The details: The Small Poppies played New Theatre from January 17-26.

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