14 January 2011

Review: Don Parties On

Don Parties On
13 January 2011
Playhouse, the Arts Centre
to 12 February 2011

David Williamson was my favourite playwright when I was 14 and I got an A+ for my Don's Party English essay. Suspecting that my teen taste may have been naive, I re-read the script and still recoiled with embarrassing recognition and nostalgia at the perfect snapshot of the generation who raised me. I love Don's Party. I'm not alone and 40-odd years later Williamson has given us Don Parties On.

I was a toddler when Don's Party was written; the same age as the offstage baby Richard. Discovering the play in 1980s Adelaide, I was far from 1970s Melbourne, but I knew Don and Kath and their guests. They were the young, university-educated middle-class generation who supported the left to rebel against their parents and felt entitled to their easy education and well-paid jobs. From their casual misogyny to the excitement of home made pizzas, this was the last generation we now call Baby Boomers and the generation whose free sex created gen X ... and in 2010 they still have friends over on election night.

Don (Garry McDonald) and Kath (Tracy Mann) are still together in their tastefully renovated house in Lower Plenty, Mal (Robert Grubb) and Jenny (Sue Jones) got divorced, Cooley (Frankie J Holden) is now a Liberal voter and married to newcomer Helen (Diane Craig), Mack is dead and there's name dropping of Evan, Kerry, Jody, Simon and Susan.

There are few surprises. They've all followed the path they were set on in 1969 and the biggest laughs came from Kath doing her PHD at Deakin (is anyone not tertiary educated in Melbourne weeing themselves?), the three men singing Creedence Clearwater Revival and the three women wanting to listen to Maxine McKew criticise the ALP when she lost her seat.

I still recognise these people, especially Jenny and her preaching to 42-year-old Richard and liberal Liberal Helen supporting Medicins Sans Frontiers and buying goats for Africa, but I don't believe them.  They have elements of people I know, but each is little more than a cliche.

But these are fictional people and "Don" tells his friends that his fictional accounts of them (he finally had a book published) were never meant to offend and that all writers borrow and exaggerate from life. If this is exaggeration, Williamson must know some very dull people. The 70s swinging stories didn't even make them interesting.

The perfectly chosen boomer cast all brought more to their characters than they were given, but the "young" ones were less successful. Playing a stereotype (even if it's written) gives an audience nothing to relate to. Instead of seeing ourselves and caring, we're left grateful that we are not like them.

Naturally I looked to Richard (Darren Gilshenan). He's 42 and thinks he's 30 (so do I), but behaves like a brat who needs his mummy to give him an overnight flu tablet to calm him down. The original offstage baby Richard was more authentic. He and his 30-year-old lover (Nikki Shiels) are poor caricatures of selfish people whose only purpose is to be laughed at. Which was ironic, as Jenny tells us how her generation feels such passion for their children.

Structurally the new party is a reflection of the old with enough exposition and self-references to excite my inner-14-year-old and make my 42-year-old self want to attack the script with a red pen. One chips and twisties joke was plenty and who cares about dentist Evan if he's not part of this story.

And as gen Y nightmare granddaughter Belle (Georgia Flood) screams, "Just because there's a vampire in the movie, doesn't make it a vampire movie", just because every ABC political celebrity and well known politician is mentioned doesn't make it a political play or a social reflection of our society.

The political satire was restricted to name dropping (including enough Nick Minchins to convince Nick Minchin that he's important) and comments about the faceless assigns of the ALP and the irrational fear of boat people. Combined with sound bites from the ABC's 2010 Election Night coverage, it felt like the kind of political lecture a new Australian should listen to in order to pass their are-you-bonza-enough-to-be-one-of-us test.

I just don't get it. I know we get more conservative and complacent in middle age, but we don't get dumber. I secretly hoped that Don Parties On would be David Williamson's finger to all of us who have scoffed at his post-Emerald City writing, but then I'm just a 42-year-old who recently asked her mum for a Panadeine Forte because she had a bad headache. And out of nostalgia, curiosity and a love of play written in the early 70s,  I would have gone to see it no matter what any review said.

Photo: Jeff Busby
This appears on AussieTheatre.com

The first review was this one on Crikey.
Arts Hub
Theatre Notes
The Age

Don's Party film trailer

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