Sydney-based travel and arts writer www.jasminecrittenden.net
Camping ain't everything it's cracked up to be
There's a scene in Three Men in a Boat in which Jerome K. Jerome satirises the muddy realities of the camping experience. What George, the novel's incurable romantic, imagines as a pastoral ideal – 'Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched ... the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone' – Harris, the incorrigible cynic, dismisses. '[The tent] is soaked and heavy, and it flops about, and tumbles down on you, and clings round your head and makes you mad ... Instead of helping you, it seems to you that the other man is simply playing the fool. Just as you get your side beautifully fixed, he gives it a hoist from his end, and spoils it all.'
The final sentence could easily be a description of Maggie and Danny from Gary Baxter's Camp. On Boxing Day, during a scorching Australian summer, they join two other couples for a back-to-nature camping escape. However, just as in Michael Gow's Away, the vacation serves more to expose relationship tensions than it does to renew romance.
Maggie (Michelle Doake) and Jack (David Terry) arrive in a traffic-fuelled frenzy – he, reluctant to be there at all, can't wait to knock back a beer (or ten); she, uptight, sexually neglected and fed up with his drinking problem, is on the verge of announcing a divorce. Setting up a tent becomes an act of warfare. Co-campers are over-bearing parents Julie (Jennifer Corren) and Peter (Jamie Oxenbould) and their opposites: the ultra laid-back Danny (Ben Ager) and utterly accepting Cynthia (Karen Pang).
Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong: campsite overcrowding, an aggressive snake, a missing child, offensive teenagers, a cyclone warning and a runaway gazebo. Director Mark Kilmurry keeps the action moving at a rollicking pace and the actors embrace their characters with gusto. Jamie Oxenbould is particularly funny as the obsessive-compulsive Peter and Michelle Doake stands out for her charismatic take on the at-the-end-of-her-tether Maggie.
Unfortunately, however, the script's unevenness reduces its edge. On one hand, we can identify with the broadbrush portraits of struggling marriages, and some of the one-liners are sharp. On the other, clichés (punning on a tent's 'erection' poles and 'flaps', for example) are frequent enough to induce moans and the characters become over-stated and repetitive.
Anna Gardiner's gently ironic set has character and colour – the inclusion of a real van (or at least the side of one, from what we can see) is a fun, engaging touch and the backdrop, depicting a row of tents, successfully transports the tiny Ensemble stage to the great outdoors. The same goes for Matthew Marshall's lighting, which captures the passing of twenty-four hours believably, shifting seamlessly from bright midday sun to the gentle glows of dusk and dawn.
Camp is likely to prove frustrating for audience members who value sophisticated, penetrating scriptwriting. It's fast-paced and mildly amusing, but ultimately, lightweight.