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The Kings Head, London

Advertising material for shows promising the Earth on a plate for just a few of your hard earned pounds seems to be the norm nowadays.

Reading a quote from Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush on the poster saying a show is ‘A beautiful, poignant piece. It may echo Chekhov and Sondheim but it’s thrillingly pure Oz’ does tend to raise the stakes somewhat.

That, however, is the quote you’ll see on the poster for Once We Lived Here which has just opened at Islington’s newly tarted-up Kings Head and for once the hype seems surprisingly and, I have to admit, pleasantly to be spot on.

Pitched somewhere between a musical and a play with songs, Dean Bryant’s book and lyrics aren’t perfect. His storytelling could do with more focus on whose story he thinks he’s giving us, and a more satisfying dramatic arc for the evening would improve things immeasurably. Act One, for example, hints at much by way of plot twists, which simply don’t materialise.

That being said, in the packed small auditorium on Upper Street which for the purposes of the show has been transformed into an arid sandy Australian sheep-station, Bryant’s tale of life on the farm, with the help of Mathew Frank’s accomplished and evocative score, transports and transfixes us sufficiently that the evident flaws of the piece become insignificant.

That this happens is due almost entirely to the cast of five actors at the top of their game who run through a whole library of emotion from elation to utter suicidal despair before our eyes.

As I said, the story is set on a sheep station in the parched Australian hinterland during a period of prolonged drought. The owner of the farm, the widowed Claire, played by Simone Craddock, is dying of leukaemia, and her adult children, the slacker son Shaun, played by Iestyn Arwel, and hard-working daughter Amy, Melle Stewart, who live with her are joined by their flighty sibling Lecy, Belinda Wollaston, and Burke, an ex-farmhand, and ex-boyfriend of Amy, played by Shaun Rennie.

As the threat of bushfires grows ever closer, and matriarch Claire grows weaker, the relationships between the siblings, and to their father who committed suicide a decade earlier, are explored through a series of scenes and flashbacks.

This is an outstanding cast which should be up for a collective ‘Offie’ if there’s any justice in the world, though amongst the riches on offer I really do need to single out for extra praise Melle Stewart who, as Amy, gives a performance of astonishing insight and nuance. During the scenes when she’s sitting up on the corrugated iron roof of the shearing shed with Burke she only has to turn her head, and move her body slightly, and she goes from being the over-worked, jaded woman who has tried, and failed, to make a go of the farm, and the idealistic youthful teenager full of energy, and the expectation of better things to come that she once was.

Mathew Frank’s score is musically directed by Alex Beetschen from the piano, and the choice of trio – piano, guitar, and double bass – gives the score an ‘indie’ feel, while also retaining the capacity to be moving when called upon so to do.

This little gem of a show probably wouldn’t survive in a much larger space. The Kings Head seems the ideal size to capture the oppressive nature of the story, and the relationships laid bare within it.

What I hope it becomes, however, is a springboard to bigger and better things for the incredible actors taking part, and also a calling card for Bryant and Frank who, given a strong enough story, could well be the future voice of Australian musical theatre.

  • Musical
  • Book, Lyrics and Direction: Dean Bryant
  • Music: Matthew Frank
  • Cast includes: Melle Stewart, Belinda Wollaston, Simone Craddock, Iestyn Arwel, Shaun Rennie
  • The Kings Head, London
  • Until 26th April 2014
  • Time: 19:15
  • Review by Richard Voyce
  • 4 April 2014

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