|Photo by Chris Lundie
SUMMER RAIN, is an Australian musical, Book and Lyrics by Nick Enright, Music by Terence Clarke, which was commissioned by the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1983, under the auspices of John Clark. It was written as a graduating play for the Third Year class and was Directed by Gale Edwards (at the start of her fabulous career in this genre. Who knew she would graduate into this Musical Theatre world internationally, trusted by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber?!) Some of that class of 17 included Helen Buday, Dean Carey, Lynn Pierse, Fiona Press, Ritchie Singer, Gregory Stone, Karen Vickery, Steven Vidler - a stellar year. Writing a play for a group of young actors in training meant that the structure of the story, the events of the play, the number of storylines that it had to bear was predicated by the need to give all the actors an opportunity to 'show' themselves. Too many characters, too much needing to happen, bent the product to an unconventional and not, wholly, satisfactory musical theatre experience. Since, editing it down, extracting, diminishing, even losing characters and plot lines, adapting it to present a more acceptable 'classic' construct for the commercial musical has required some occupying time for the companies and artists that have since presented the work. It was presented by The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) in 1989 and 2004, also by the Queensland Theatre Company (QTC), in 1997. This shrinking of the characters and plot lines was always SUMMER RAIN' s main stage problem, and watching it again the other night at the New Theatre it still, relatively, is.
I had seen the original show and of course the STC showing. So, it was with some pre-knowledge and trepidation I went along. I had a perfectly charming night. The play is set in 1945 and concerns the arrival of a show-business family, the Slocum's, into the country town of Turnaround Creek, a place that they had once visited some years ago. The plot of the piece involves the interaction of the actors and the townies, in that present time with the ghosts of the past haunting. SUMMER RAIN has the cliche events of the musical of this era (Hollywood/Broadway influence) and a range of very familiar character types (CAROUSEL, OKLAHOMA, here we come!)
What displaces the boredom of the familiarity whilst watching, is in the world of the play, if, especially, if, you are of a certain age/generation - it, a very probable fiction - that creates, nostalgically, a usage of Aussie lingo that has the ring of another time of rhyming humour and with enough references to an authentic Australian experience post World War II - returned displaced soldiers, the gossip and 'love' frustrations of a little town lingering on the point of economic collapse, facing up to the hardship of the Australian drought, hoping for a summer rain to regenerate it all - hitting all the right 'buttons' of human reassurance. The principal strength of the writing is in its subversive humour that undercuts - just - its urges to spill into a sentimentality, keeping it kind of 'real' - or, as 'real' as any musical of this type can be. It exemplifies the very typical traits of all of Mr Enright's writing - thoroughly white and middle class and unchallengingly comfortable with itself and the world it lives in, occupied by the catholic personal/'sexual' hic-cups of a domestic small country town life.
The production, Directed and Choreographed by Trent Kidd, Designed attractively and wittily by Mason Brown (Set and Costume) - such efficient scene-shifting changes (don't know about that organ, though, as an accompaniment to the town sing-a-long!) - bounces along with a crisp clean confidence, unfussy and unlaboured in any of its telling. The Choreography is 'bright' and confidently executed. Great credit must go to all in the company who (mostly) can sing and dance well and create characters of enough flesh and blood to help us recognise and care for them and their story.
Jacqui Rae Moloney (Ruby Slocum) Brett O'Neil (Bryce Barclay/Red Farrell), Nat Jobe (Clarrie Nugent), Catty Hamilton (Joy Slocum), and the dramatic love-triangle handled deftly by Tom Handley (Johnny Slocum), Anna Freeland (Peg Hartigan) and David Hooley (Mick Hartigan) lead us happily through the permutations of it all. I especially responded to the characterisation of Mr Hooley, in his moody, brooding depiction of a man coping with the shock of war and injury and feelings of inadequacey, and welcomed Andrew Sharp (Harold Slocum) back to a Sydney stage, after almost 30 years, with his elegant but tawdry stage blooded victim of the theatre-illness - the need to perform at all costs - resonant with a period veneer of glibness and yet possessed of a heart when the crucible of life demanded it of him. Lawrence Coy gives us, with surety, the unhappy Barry Doyle, the pivot to the 'mystery' of the plot.
Despite the papered cracks of the adaptation of the Book material, that shows, especially in the second act, it is the witty, disarming 'iconic' sounding lyrics of the songs, and the music and arrangements written by Terence Clarke that lifts this work into a pleasant and resonating experience. An experience that appears to be authentic and yet we know is a romantic construct."The Casuarina Tree", a song, an instance to my point, having all the qualities to make us feel a sense of warmth and belonging and longing for that 'other' time. For, although the play was written in 1983 it feels as if it is a classic of the forties or fifties - and, yet, we know that there is no Australian repertoire to distinguish it as a period classic of that time. Mr Clarke's music is the magic making in the moments of living through this production.SUMMER RAIN is a 90's invention that sits comfortably in a remembered (Broadway/Hollywood) past with the idealism of the Aussie cliche that keeps us relaxed and comfortable - a White Australia with all the oversimplified values of a relatively easy (fictional?) past whose main dilemma was coping with the intense natural travails of Australia's 'bloody' awful climate - drought and bushfires. For there is no other bloody politics here, it seems, (no Indigenous or migrant story here) just this invented, cosy nostalgia for the melodrama of love matching for the re-generation of family and family values - the concern of every decent Australian, right? Right?
The Band under the Direction of Tim Cunniffe supports the show and sets the clean tempo of the production - a real and subtle pleasure.
I had a very good time and I can recommend it very easily. A Christmas present for the romantic Aussie that is in some of us.