Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company
27 February 2009
The Melbourne Theatre Company opened the shiny, brand-spanking-new Sumner Theatre this very-hot week with a shiny, new, very hot Australian work.
Poor Boy is described as “a play with songs”. Matt Cameron’s script weaves with Tim Finn’s music from over the last 30 years, including songs from Spit Enz and his solo work.
This highly original work is not a piece of musical theatre. The songs are not part of the plot and used like an emotional commentary. The story stands by itself without the music and the music tells its own story without the play. As neither is dependent upon the other, they support and strengthen each other to create something surprisingly powerful and unexpectedly moving.
‘Poor Boy’ is also the title of a song from Split Enz’s album ‘True Colours’. (Remember, “My love is alien” with lots of dated swishy synth.)This was my favourite album of 1980 (constant playing of “I hope I never” got me though much tween-heartbreak) and still makes it onto my iPod. Ian McDonald’s arrangements make the music feel like it was written for the story, while Cameron’s script captures Finn’s recurring natural motifs and recreates the mood of each song through a completely different story.
When Jem turns seven, he claims to be adult Danny who died several years ago. Truths are and secrets are revealed as both families cope with the loss of a son. Cameron places the supernatural and the extraordinary well within the ordinary and recognisable world of the two families, while developing a sense of wonder and a dreamlike detachment. The MTCS’s companion piece Grace deals with similar themes, but Poor Boy is so much more powerful because the playwright never questions the truth of the situation and lets the beliefs of the characters guide the audience to their own conclusions.
Cameron’s perfectly crafted writing surprises at each turn and concludes so perfectly that you could never imagine it being anything else. Each character had their own complete and engaging story and balance within the overall plot. His complex imagery of water, digging, biblical heroes and zebras seems ridiculous as I write it, but beautiful on the stage and forms the lyrical base of the script. The dialogue sounds slightly unnatural, but it clearly comes from the unspoken and unconscious thoughts of the characters and conversations that are more fluid would break the haunting atmosphere.
The star-power of Guy Pearce as Danny will bring many people to Poor Boy – and rightly so. Pearce on stage is as enigmatic and addictive as he is on film. He puts the character before his performance and makes you completely forget you are watching an actor.
The rest of the cast (Greg Stone, Linda Cropper, Matt Dykrunski, Sara Gleeson, Abi Tucker, Sarah Peirse and a rotating cast of three boys) are equally as outstanding, and Simon Phillips’s direction steps back to let the script and music speak for themselves while discretely helping when a little more is needed.
The love that the creative team have for this work spills from the stage. There is never a moment when it doesn’t feel like this is something very special and it’s wonderful to sit amongst an audience who can feel and share this sense of pride and wonder.
This time last year I was saying how consistently disappointed I was with the MTC. Perhaps the move to the terrific new theatre has released some demons. Poor Boy is setting the bar high for what this company should always producing and I hope I never have to see a lesser production again.
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com