Review: Tequila Mockingbird – shake & stir theatre company and QPAC at Cremorne Theatre, QPAC

Photo credit: Dylan Evans

We’ve written before about the work produced by the people involved with shake & stir theatre company, surely one of the most impressive and successful arts companies currently in operation in Queensland and, indeed, around Australia. (Type ‘shake and stir’  into the Search box to see what we’ve had to say over the years.)

Like many, I suspect, I had assumed we’d see the company’s signature physical story-telling at work on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee in much the same way they’d crafted George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, although the poster image of a very sultry Nelle Lee had me puzzled. Tequila Mockingbird breaks some exciting new ground for shake & stir who have  labelled this work, ‘a new Australian play created by shake & stir theatre co,’ and that it certainly is folks.

Whilst Tequila … may have appropriated some of the character types and themes from Ms Lee’s novel – especially loss of innocence and the impact of difference in a tight-knit conservative community – don’t expect southern folksiness and charm. The narrative has moved from the US in the Depression to Queensland in the here and now. We’re in Stanton, somewhere in country Queensland – but it could be anywhere in Australia. Charm in Stanton is in very short supply.

Like the novel, Tequila … (excellent direction and dramaturgy by Michael Futcher) tells its story through the eyes of a child and the play’s narrator (Nick Skubij), the son of a lawyer Richard (Brian Probets) who is separated from his wife, and doing his best to father his bored 16 year old son. The strictures of life in the country town weigh heavily on the boy who turns to mischief-making and petty crime with the local kids. The racial prejudice found in the novel appears again in the play. This time it’s the new Indian GP, Sameer (Shannon Haegler) who’s the object of the town’s bigotry. He’s new, clearly different, and struggling to fit in to a tiny, insular and unwelcoming community.

We’re quickly introduced through a marvellous cavalcade of types – who are never clichéd – to the town’s underbelly of racism, its secrets and lies, and the awful anxieties that underpin daily life. It’s an explosive compound that ends in more than one tragic event. The fall out, you sense, will be ongoing. Between them Mr Skubij, Ms Lee, Ross Balbuziente and Barbara Lowing (in her debut for shake & stir) create the Stanton townsfolk – the publican, neighbours, the kids in vivid, strong and believable characterisations that are funny, appalling and tragic. I suspect for many who see the show – and it is going to sell out – the calibre of its acting may be the highlight of this production of Tequila Mockingbird. It’s simply excellent across the board.

Tequila Mockingbird is a finely constructed theatrical event with all the hallmarks of shake & stir’s ‘house’ style. Once again, the stage world has been designed by the combined team-work of  Josh McIntosh, with lighting by Jason Glenwright, and sound design by Guy Webster; this team is experienced, and in excellent form. The stage looks and sounds very good indeed.

Whilst their background in educational theatre is evident in the energetic directness, clarity and focus on story-telling,  shake & stir’s Tequila Mockingbird is a mature work absolutely grounded in the here and now. The play’s take-away message is sobering and discomforting as it is meant to be. It’s terrific, entertaining political theatre with a sting in the tail.

USE2Welcome to the professional theatre Shannon Haegler whom I last saw in USQ’s student production of Richard III last year. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work.

Oh, and a ‘Tequila Mockingbird’? It’s a cocktail that Publican Sue (Ms Lowing) whips up for international night for the locals.

Tequila Mockingbird plays at Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until 7th September. Details on the websites.