Behind the scenes of the suburbs

22 November 2019

Review: WA Youth Theatre Company, The Cockatoos ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, 21 November ·
Review by Robert Housley ·

Behind the façade of suburban life are the complex stories of its human inhabitants. The relationships within individual households are a daily dance. The interactions between people living in the same neighbourhood can go beyond superficial pleasantries, if they can be bothered to even acknowledge each other. For many of us, this is a significant portion of our lives. Little wonder this milieu is such fertile ground for creative industry practitioners.

When one of Australia’s foremost authors, 1973 Nobel Literature Prize-winner Patrick White, dissects this world, its underlying complexities are exposed on the page. His short novel The Cockatoos has been reimagined for the stage by guest director Andrew Hale and presented by an accomplished twelve-member cast of WA Youth Theatre Company performers.

This moderately challenging work has the hallmarks of White’s dense writing – stream-of-consciousness storytelling from a multitude of perspectives. Just seven of the twelve performers have defined roles: Lauren Thomas (Olive), Liam Hickey (Mick), Alexander Gerrans (Clyde), Rebecca Collin (Gwen) Georgia Ivers (Miss LeCornu) Brent Shields (Figgis) and Sylvia Cornes (Mrs Dulhunty and Mumma). The remaining five – Amelia Burke, Christopher Moro, Grace Chow, Zachary Sheridan and Samai King – are all designated members of the chorus. When the principal characters are not in their roles, they too become members of the chorus.

Lauren Thomas as Olive and Liam Hickey as Mick. Photo: David Cox.

Deciphering who is who and where the narrative is heading is occasionally confusing, but there is a strong storyline that keeps the audience thoroughly engaged. Set in the 1970s, it revolves around an aging, childless couple, Olive and Mick. They have not spoken to each other for seven years, only communicating via an exchange of written notes. The apparent reason for their disturbingly unhealthy relationship is the death of her beloved budgie while he was caring for it in her absence. Mick has found loveless intimacy elsewhere in the company of Miss LeCornu, whose one-line descriptor typifies White’s searing wit: “Always stoned, but never to death”.

Archetypal suburban Australia rings true with the arrival of cockatoos that roost in the sugar gum in Olive and Mick’s yard. Can these new birds be the salve to repair their deeply dysfunctional relationship? But what about the noise?

Alongside this is the more peripheral story of eight-year-old Tim, who has sneaked out of his family home to spend the night alone in the local park. The things you can see after dark with a child’s imagination and when no-one knows you are there. Grumpy neighbours, judgemental parents and charity collections also find their way in to the story of this typical Australian neighbourhood.

Bringing this all together in 65 minutes was a directorial feat by Hale and his two assistants (Jono Battista and Elise Wilson) that the ensemble cast approached with gusto. Indeed, it is the collective strength of their performance and its dynamism that was the highlight of the show. There was never a dull moment, doubtless enhanced by WAYTC artistic director James Berlyn’s attention to detail in the unusual role of Movement and Intimacy Coordinator.

Costume designer Laura Heffernan has clearly had fun dressing the cast in classic 70s garb. The sound design by Neil Webster and assistant David Stewart is all about suburban atmospherics, starting beautifully with birdsong and piano. Ash Gibson Greig has also created an original song for the piece. Tony Gordon’s lighting does just what is necessary to subtly augment each scene on the ostensibly bare stage, which has a multifunctional giant swing as its only set item.

If this show is a reflection of performance quality from the WA Youth Theatre Company as it approaches its 30th anniversary in 2020, then funding the development of emerging theatre artists for its next 30 years is money well spent.

Recommended for ages 16 years and above.

The Cockatoos runs until 29 November. 

Pictured top is Lauren Thomas as Olive, with company members in background. Photo: David Cox.

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Author —
Robert Housley

Robert Housley returns to arts journalism following a 20-year hiatus managing performing arts venues. He was the last arts editor of Perth’s Daily News and has worked as a journalist in London, Cape Town and Amsterdam. Robert’s favourite item of playground equipment is the swing and its enduring challenge: how high can you go?

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