Review: Managing Carmen – Queensland Theatre Company at QPAC Playhouse

Opening nights can be times of high anticipation or high anxiety depending on which side of the stage you happen to be. They are never dull and are usually also suffused with excitement especially if it’s a world-premiere and, in Australia, if it’s a new David Williamson play.

So it was on Thursday at the Playhouse in Brisbane for Managing Carmen which we all knew well in advance from the marketing is a play about a champion AFL football player who likes dressing up in frocks. Cue dozens of blokey jokes …

The fact that Williamson has written a sweet and clever morality tale with tolerance at its heart is a measure  of how the big man of Australian drama can catch a moment in that fabled zeitgeist out there and spin it into a yarn that’s funny and true. He’s done that throughout his career, been labelled at one time as ‘the Chekhov of Australian drama’ for the way he lines up aspects of Australian culture and its middle-class foibles and then pokes mullock. The comparison, like all such, are odious. He’s Williamson and critics have had their way with him over the years. Like his work or not, consider it trite or profound, berate him for the lack of epics or large-scale social criticism in his astonishing output, Williamson’s work is something to celebrate. His latest is a gem to treasure.

With Managing Carmen Director Wesley Enoch delivers a fast-paced piece of bona-fide classic farce with skill and gusto. The nightmare ‘outsider’ scenario: a sane person wandering through a madhouse, or the intrusion of an unhinged person into a staid world; the opening and shutting doors, slapstick and general frenetic nuttiness that are the hallmarks of farce are all here in spades. The doors are gone but Richard Roberts‘ brilliant stage design lit by Trent Suidgeest – a sleek and glossy revolve – opens up the action on the big Playhouse stage to multiple locations, and provides the pace, variety and comings and goings that are a joy to watch.

The cast of five (John Batchelor, Tim Dashwood, Claire Lovering, Anna McGahan and Greg McNeill) are uniformly terrific and, despite a little bit of opening night pushing, complement and flesh out a joyous night of theatricality.

In this farce it’s the apparent odd man out who is the sanest and most likeable. In a world that devalues honesty in favour of prestige and money, Brent is also the saddest. He’s a ‘man’s man’ and sporting celebrity – a Brownlow Medallist and champion footballer living a lie. Crippled by his dreadful secret he is lonely, holed up in his gorgeous apartment watching documentaries. His coming out and the reaction it causes – to Rohan Swift (the fab John Batchelor) as his manager, his girlfriend (Anna McGahan) the sports-world and the media (Greg McNeill excellent as the greasily poisonous Max Upfield) provides material for Williamson’s delicious mix of social satire and farcical comedy.

Ms McGahan is hilarious as Brent’s fake, rapacious girlfriend Clara. After his coming out to her as a cross-dresser their frock talk and covert girly night on the town are just totes awesome – comedy central material. However, germane to the play’s satirical comedy is the successful transformation from Brent’s masculine icon into feminine alter-ego. Tim Dashwood simply excels in the role with its demands of high comic playing as well as tender vulnerability.

Claire Lovering plays Jessica Giordano who is hired by his manager Rohan Swift to groom the hapless Brent for the camera. You just know these two are made for each other – sure enough. I must confess to never having seen a football handled in quite in the way Ms Lovering manages the ball in one lovely, wordless scene. No spoilers – you have to go and see it yourself!

Managing Carmen is unashamedly and brilliantly boulevard theatre of the kind that Georges Feydeau perfected in the 19th century, and which had and still has audiences rocking with laughter. Opening nighters on Thursday stood at the end to applaud playwright, cast and the production. It’s that good.

Perth is in for a treat when it tours to Black Swan Theatre Company in the Heath Ledger Theatre in a few weeks’ time. So, get on down to South Bank and say you saw it first.

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