15 May 2019

Review: Cloudstreet

Cloudstreet
Malthouse Theatre

11 May 2019
Merlyn Theatre
19 June
malthousetheatre.com.au


Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

The 1991 novel Cloudstreet won WA writer Tim Winton his second of four Miles Franklin Awards. It's a book that's easy to find in op shops as it's studied at high school, has been a telly mini-series and is one of those books that needs to be seen in bookcases.

The 1988 Black Swan and Company B Belvoir stage adaption by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo brought a new generation to the story as it toured Australia and went to London.

Matt Lutton directs the new Malthouse production. He's from Perth and says how reading the book helped him "understand what it meant to be growing up on Perth". Now, he lives in Melbourne and this Cloudstreet is more about its far-reaching themes than a reflection on living in the most isolated capital city in the world.

In the early 1940s, circumstance, luck or God bring the Pickles and the Lamb families to share a sprawling house in suburban Perth: 1 Cloud Street. Each family have challenges, successes and tragedies – and the threat of a serial killer – over the 20 years it takes for their stories to become one. It can be seen all on one night or split into two.

The stage adaption naturally cuts and condenses the novel. The pig doesn’t make the cut, but the third person narration does and is given directly to the characters. Talking about themselves in the third person creates intimacy as the audience become confessor and are allowed to know more than we see. But Lutton's new production brings the story even further into now. The most powerful changes are the introduction of Noongar language – the house is on Noongar land – and the "Black Man" character has become a male and a female storyteller. This helps to honour the story of the women who once lived, and now haunt, the house and, supported by a racially diverse, makes the story less about the people who lived there in the mid-20th century.

Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

This is supported by having a small cast playing multiple roles. The bigger picture is evident, but it doesn't help make the story clear. There are times when it's confusing as to who are Pickles, Lambs, storytellers or new characters. Even something as simple as a cast list and synopsis in the program would help.

The actors with one character are much stronger. Natasha Herbert and Bert LaBonte are Dolly and Sam Pickles. Alison Whyte and Greg Stone are Oriel and Lester Lamb. Each bring a compelling understanding of the characters and the added complexity of seeing them with an empathy that can be missed in the book. Herbert lets Dolly be loved far more than she ever allows her herself to be loved; Whyte shows how Oriel hides her broken soul; and LaBonte and Stone each find a different kind of acceptance, determination and lovability in Sam and Lester.

As the story moves into the latter years, it becomes that of Rose Pickles (Brenna Harding), Quick Lamb (Guy Simon) and ultimately Fish Lamb (Benjamin Oakes), the favourite child who nearly drowns and suffers brain damage. Harding also brings a complexity to Rose and lets her make decisions rather than face consequences; Simon captures Quicks constant guilt; and Oakes lets Fish always react with a mix of wonder and patient acceptance that one day he will go back to the water.

Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

At first view, Zoe Atkison's design looks like it's embodied the themes and motifs of the story with dark waves and hints of ghosts on its three sides. The stage floor of old thick floorboards and hidden walls that slide in and out, like the lift doors on Star Trek, hint at the old house and its many rooms. But as the rooms are indistinguishable, the design doesn't capture the house as the titular character that wants the families gone as much as it wants them to stay.

While there are some mighty powerful moments with complete black outs and a flooding stage, the story often feels too literal. Its magical realism of rowing through fields, swimming through stars, and Quick Lamb glowing is told far more than is seen. This ultimately makes it feel like a family-saga-cum-soap-opera, which seems to flow against the bigger Dreaming story that’s also being told.

This Cloudstreet isn’t the same as the book, the mini-series or of the first famous production. Its version is very much one seen through a contemporary point of view. This is its strength and part of the reason it doesn’t resonate as strongly as it could. None of which should will stop Cloudstreet lovers from seeing and loving it.

And if you don’t know what the fuss is about, grab a copy from an op shop for a couple of gold coins. For what it's worth, I like the book.

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