Review: The Removalists – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

It’s been a while since I’d last seen one of David Williamson‘s best plays, The Removalists – 36 years, in fact, in an opening night performance of a production by QTC at the old La Boite Theatre in Hale Street. I took the opportunity this week to see a matinee performance once again at Queensland Theatre Company. I was surrounded by kids, and seniors like me; weekday matinees tend to be like that.

The current production, directed by Michelle Miall for the Studio program, was a bit of a nostalgia trip in many ways, and I wondered how the high school students around me would react to a period piece – for such it is. The first production of the play in Melbourne in 1971 featured David Williamson as the removalist, and his wife to be, Kristin. This production marks the play’s 40th anniversary. Still hard to believe …

Back in the early 1970s Australian drama was going through its heady nationalist phase. The Ocker figure made his appearance over and over, the women’s liberation movement was getting an exploratory nod (here and there) on stages, and more than a fair sprinkling of vulgarity and violence was the norm. Lots of beer cans were popped on stage and the male vernacular ruled. They were exciting theatrical times and it was all exhilarating stuff, although female characters tended to be short-changed in what was an overwhelmingly masculinist world on stage. More often than not, these productions shocked the socks off seniors at matinee performances back then. These plays hadn’t made the schools’ syllabus list – these too were awaiting liberation.

Williamson’s text is tight, entertaining realism in the service of a good yarn; this much hasn’t changed at all. The twin protagonists – Sgt Dan Simmonds played by Chris Betts and Kenny Carter by Steven Rooke – are terrific, layered characters which remain a challenge and, I imagine, a delight to play for any actor. They are two of the great roles in modern Australian drama. Both Betts and Rooke are well matched here and in good form as they spar verbally and physically.

As I watched, I was reminded of something that was obvious in a lot of Australian plays from the 1970s: Williamson wrote awful roles for women. Until later on, when complex, central characters like Frances (Travelling North) or Barbara (The Perfectionist) appeared in his works, this lack of meaty roles for women in his plays was a bone of contention amongst female actors. In this production of The Removalists (one of those plays) two fine actors Emmaline Carroll (Fiona Carter) and Natasha Yantsch (her sister, Kate) are constrained by roles which are as slight as the male roles are rich; they are almost entirely satellites and supports to the males. Peter Cook as Rob, the Removalist, and Anthony Standish who plays Simmonds’ foil, the new cop on the job, Const Neville Ross round out the cast.

Michelle Miall’s production keeps the pace up – 1 hr 44 mins with no interval – and she lets more of the comedy show. Chris Betts’ Simmonds is less the sinister, terrifying thug than comic, lecherous braggart circling Kate in hopes of some overtime fun. Steven Rooke is excellent as Kenny; it’s some of his best work, and he’s always good. Anthony Standish is terrific too as Ross; he’s the embodiment of a boofhead – all nervous, try-hard precision. In a weird way, even after you know he’s committed an appalling crime, you just can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Kenny’s the same. He’s unlikeable but sufficiently complex to grab our interest and our sympathy. ‘I’m unpredictable. It’s part of me charm,’ he notes cannily of himself. Williamson may well have written the role of Rob knowing he was going to play it himself in that original production. It was a smart move either way; it’s an unforgettable little pearler of a role. Once heard, you never forget that defining mantra from the guy who knows he’s the real man in charge, ‘I’ve got $10 000 worth of machinery ticking over out there in the drive.’ Peter Cook fills this smartypants Everyman role with relish – and a smirk.

In the post-show Q&A session the kids asked about the props: ‘Were they real?’ they asked. There’s a television audience for you! It turns out that the labels and packaging, uniforms and set dressing were all of period in which the play is set. Lit by Jason Glenwright,  Simone Romaniuk‘s wonderfully-awful-70s (you can still get that wallpaper?) set design works well for police station (Act 1) and Kenny and Fiona’s living room (Act 2.) I’m a sucker for those soundscape atmospheric mixes of music and popular culture from a period. Here, Sound Designer Tony Brumpton gathers snatches of television and news broadcasts from the early 1970s and gets the sound of the times spot on as well. By the bye, hasn’t the style of VO announcers changed?

Whilst the student audience asked about the police corruption portrayed in the play, no one talked about how the actors had worked on the violence which made The Removalists such a shocking piece when it was first produced on Australian stages; there’s that television audience again. Whilst I recall squirming during the onstage violence – choreographed by Scott Witt – I found even more revolting the perverted mateship that plays out over a beer and a cigarette. Kenny drags himself back from the kitchen where Ross has beaten and kicked him to a bloody mess, and, in the scene that follows, Williamson sets up one of the most violent and disturbing endings in Australian drama. Beer can in hand Kenny dies from a massive cerebral haemorrhage and, in what the stage directions describe as ‘a frenzied ritual of exorcism,’ both police officers beat each other senseless over his body. It’s truly brilliant, ghastly stuff.

When it first appeared to great acclaim, the black comedy and the horror of The Removalists was undeniably shocking. Whilst it may not have the visceral impact of the original productions in their own time, there is no doubting its dramatic power.

The Removalists by David Williamson Directed by Michelle Miall for Queensland Theatre Company plays at the Bille Brown Studio, 78 Merivale Street, S Brisbane until 6 August. Check the Company website for details.

 

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