Reviews/Musical Theatre

An irresistible musical milestone

7 May 2021

The Summer of our Lives is immensely entertaining and an important milestone in the trajectory of two of WA’s finest theatre artists, says David Zampatti.

The Summer of Our Lives, Western Sky Projects ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 7 May, 2021 ·

The playwright and librettist Tyler Jacob Jones and composer Robert Woods are like Tim and Tam – put them together and you have an irresistible, delicious treat that is unmistakably ours.

Their string of hits includes the Fringe World Martin Sims award-winners Point and Shoot (2014) and What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger (2018), and the garlanded Falling to the Top (2013), Dr Felicity Rickshaw’s Celebrity Sex Party (2016), along with, individually, Woods’ scores for award-winners Laika and Bus Boy and Jones’ superb F*@K Decaf and Becky Petersen Will Punch You in the Face.

It’s a fabulous body of work (I feel genuine sympathy for those of you who haven’t seen at least a smattering of it) and places them at the pinnacle of Perth’s creative talent.

I’ve thought for some time that if I were ever to see two West Australian names on the marquee of a theatre on a great white way somewhere, it would be theirs. And that if anyone here had both the creative weaponry and chutzpah to deliver a brand spanking new, full-bore two-act stage musical, it would be them.

Well – here it is. The Summer of Our Lives. And even if it’s being staged in the tiny Blue Room theatre rather than the Heath Ledger or the Maj, and even if it’s more like a pack of Arnott’s Family Assorted than the full Tim Tam, it’s an important moment in Perth theatre.

The story, of a tragedy-stricken, barely functional family on a summer holiday with the widowed mother’s overbearing suitor, the octopus-like alien critter they find in a vacation rental wardrobe and the murderous goons pursuing it is typically (for Jones and Woods) outrageous and all but indescribable.

on a stage under blue lights sits a girl on a bed
Emily Semple is the delightfully obstinate pre-adolescent Penelope, who discovers an alien critter in ‘The Summer of Our Lives’. Photo Daniel Grant

As is customary with their work, The Summer of Our Lives is shot through with pop-cultural reference, from ET, Men in Black, The Simpsons and Mary Poppins to every musical you’ve ever heard.

 The plot (which is protected by the international covenant outlawing spoilers) lurches rather than twists towards a gore-ious denouement with not the slightest attempt at reality but with a nice read on the inner strength of vulnerable people and the power of the nerd.

The central character, a delightfully obstinate pre-adolescent piece of work named Penelope (Emily Semple), keeps a list of things she would eradicate if she had the chance, starting, ambitiously, with ants (although they will be replaced at the top of her hit parade as the story develops). She discovers the critter – which she names Derek – and they develop a symbiotic relationship that offers her hope she might achieve her ambitious goals.

The other family members, Penelope’s mum Beth (Erin Hutchinson) and brother Arthur (Elliot Peacock) agree to keep Derek hidden from Beth’s suitor, the old-school religious, self-congratulatory Ned (Nick Maclaine).

The sinister forces gathering around the family appear in the form of the cute-as-a-button, ostensibly friendly, neighbor Glance Badgerstaine (Tory Kendrick) and a gang of Men With Guns (Tristan McInnes, who also wrangles the Derek puppet).

The rest is for you to find out for yourself.

Tory Kendrick is the friendly neighbour Glance Badgerstaine and Elliot Peacock draws sympathy as Arthur. Photo Daniel Grant

Look, the show has some shortcomings. Jones’ lyrics are rapid, loaded and tricksy (he performs superbly in many other of his shows, and this style of delivery is his forté) and some of the cast struggle with the necessary clarity. There are times when the narrative and action run away from their staging and, despite the considerable skill of director Katt Osborne, things do get a bit messy at times.

Jones has not (quite) mastered the ultimate genius of the musical song: it’s ability to fit perfectly into the narrative of the show while, at the same time, standing apart from it. That independence (think “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma or “Somewhere” from West Side Story) makes these songs eternal; the best of The Summer of our Lives’ songs – “Half an Orphan”, “I Like This Story Better” – have that potential, needing only to be set free from their cocoon.

Woods is a musical archive, and his tunes are shot through with witty “where have I heard that before?” moments. The arrangements by Joe Louis Robinson, who performs on keyboards with Alex Barker’s percussion, are spare but precise – I look forward to hearing them with a full band one day.

The cast is hard-working and committed – they have to be – and at the curtain call they were all sweat-streaked and bloodstained (whoops); Semple nailed Penelope’s gritty craziness and Peacock’s Arthur elicits the most sympathy in a show that doesn’t trade in that commodity. MacLaine goes full Flanders as Ned, nicely drawing the character’s vicious streak and weakness – his eventual come-uppance was met with both laughter and applause by the audience.

McInnes deserves particular praise – he flits in and out of the action with a mixture of stealth and charisma; it’s not a part so much as a task, and he does it well.

Hutchinson, who collaborates with Jones and Woods in many of their shows, has a practiced understanding of their method and purpose and gives Beth the exact mix of confusion and determination the show’s most nuanced character demands while all hell breaks loose around her.

You should see The Summer of Our Lives (tickets, I suspect, will become hard to get) because it’s immensely entertaining, because its strengths overwhelm its shortcomings, but also because, in its ambition and sheer bravado, it’s an important milestone in the trajectory of two of WA’s finest theatre artists. 

The Summer of Our Lives is at The Blue Room until May 22.

Disclaimer: ‘The Summer of Our Lives’ performer Erin Hutchinson is a reviewer for Seesaw Magazine.

Pictured top L-R: The hard-working cast of ‘The Summer of Our Lives’ includes Elliot Peacock (Arthur), Nick Maclaine (Ned), Emily Semple (Penelope) and Erin Hutchinson (Beth). Photo Daniel Grant

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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