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Once in Royal David's City - Review

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by Kiesten McCauley (subscribe)
My early career was in teaching, writing, producing and directing for theatre, comedy and impro shows. Now I'm a professional creative person. Mostly high-end branding, strategy, writing, editing and digital content creation.
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Michael Gow's Masterpiece is 'Must See' Theatre
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Star of Once in Royal David's City, Jason Klarwein at the after party.


If you want laughs from your theatre – proper Aussie humour without jingoism type laughs – get in to QPAC's Playhouse now for Once in Royal David's City. The laughs come from in-jokes you'll get because you recognise the people or the routines of their lives. You'll understand the sarcasm and the uniquely Australian style of 'mucking around'. If you've ever studied or taught Brechtian theatre, there are plenty of extra jokes in there just for you too.

It would, however, be incorrect to completely classify Once in Royal David's City as a comedy. It's also laden with hard truths, heartache and death. The play oozes the pain of loss and of a life wasted working for 'the man' only to be tossed aside like trash and to die an early death. It rages with the anger of the working class whose backs are broken to line the pockets of the fat cats. It implores you to rise up and take back the power from those who control the means of production.

You have between now and the fourteenth of May to experience a piece of life-changing theatre. Playwright Michael Gow will have you thinking about all the things you're doing with the time between now and when you'll die and whether they're worthwhile. So it's probably worth warning you this play may cause you to want to quit your job, or ditch that toxic person in your life, or start something meaningful. That's merely one of the things that makes this an important play that everyone needs to see.

Yes, everyone knows art is subjective and live theatre is, well, 'live' so anything could happen. Perhaps you won't see in it what this reviewer saw. It's still imperative you see it. You'll discover your own meanings in the text and the show will remind you of people you know and those you've loved and lost.

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The opening night after party in full swing.


If you've been an admirer of Michael Gow's playwriting since 'Away' (1986) and seen several of his works as director or Artistic Director (QT when it still had the C on the end, 1999-2010), you'll have very high expectations of this play. You're likely to have high expectations of Jason Klarwein who plays the lead role of Will Drummond. You might even have such high expectations you spend a portion of the play waiting for some part of it to be really bad. Don't bother waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sam Strong's first run out of the blocks as a director since becoming the AD for QT (nee QTC) has him living up to his surname. The work is exceptionally strong. It's been so long since Brisbane's seen a director really conquer the Brechtian style of theatre so comprehensively. The direction is fun and lively, clever and well balanced. He's teased out some risky and committed performances from the cast too.

Matt Scott's lighting design was outstanding. The shadow work succeeded beautifully. The golden hues when Penny Everingham as Jeannie Drummond is reminiscing about a visit to Bondi Beach were perfect. He also did a great job in mimicking the unforgiving, white, soul-sucking lights of a hospital room.

So many scenes stick in one's mind after seeing Once in Royal David's City. The superbly paced scene with Wil Drummond (Jason Klarwein) and the skateboarding 'Boy' (Adam Solis) was a delight. The purposefully cheesy song and dance number was hilarious as was the crowd's reactions to the kid on the scooter in the airport.

All of the performers were solid and supportive of each other. None strove to outshine the others. There was a humble excellence to their level of skill and craft. Penny Everingham was particularly good in what must be an emotionally and physically challenging role. It feels like Jason Klarwein was made to play the part of Will Drummond. To use the parlance of our times, he nailed it. To use the exact words of Queensland Theatre Executive Director Sue Donnelly, "I've known Jason for a very long time. I think this is the best thing I've seen him in."

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Queensland Theatre Executive Director Sue Donnelly singing Jason Klarwein's praises.


Klarwein hardly leaves the stage for a moment of the play. He's got rafts of dialogue which he effortlessly makes sound like it's his own off the cuff thoughts and words. He has to run the gamut of emotions without breaking a sweat. It's easy to agree with Ms Donnelly on this one.

The play's story centres around a family still reeling from the passing of their patriarch. It's Christmas and Jeannie comes to visit her beloved son Will in Byron Bay for Christmas. Their plans are thrown into disarray by Jeannie's sudden health woes. This narrative, being so inspired by Bertolt Brecht, the father of Epic Theatre and the alienation effect, is merely a hook on which to hang the political message of the play.

The emotional turmoil you feel – the laughter and tears, the feelings of relating to these people and their lives – is to ensure you feel deeply passionate about the issues. As Bertolt Brecht did in the early to mid 1900s, Once in Royal David's City helps the viewer to better understand the complexities of societal relationships and systems.

In the denouement, Will's Marxist speech comes close to inciting a revolt. He besieges the audience to the point of palpable disquietude. In a world where the right wing rules the roost with an iron tweet it's exciting to hear some left wing diatribe get stage time. Bertolt would be glad; the audience got the political message of Once in Royal David's City tonight and we won't soon forget it.
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Why? It's 'must see' theatre
When: 22 April - 14 May 2017
Phone: 13 62 46
Where: Playhouse, QPAC
Cost: $55 – 86
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