Review: Travelling North (Sydney Theatre Company)

rsz_398087-6086798c-83c3-11e3-b691-c4bd5b62f2b6Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jan 10 – Mar 22, 2014
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Andrew Upton
Actors: Alison Whyte, Bryan Brown, Harriet Dyer, Russell Kiefel, Emily Russell, Andrew Tighe, Sara West

Theatre review
David Williamson’s 1979 play about a Melbourne couple moving up north, finds new life with the Sydney Theatre Company. Andrew Upton once again focuses attention on people and stories, and keeps visual design to a minimum. Set and props are rendered virtually invisible, except for an effective three tiered curved stage reminiscent of Australian landscapes. Upton’s direction brings out the realism of relationships and characters, creating everyday personalities that we are able to identify and relate to easily. There is a tendency for Williamson’s concepts to appear overly mundane as a result of Upton’s minimalist vision, but the production is kept buoyant by a healthy dose of humour that thrives in the midst of its pervasive simplicity.

Bryan Brown is miscast as the elderly Frank. Brown is charming, handsome and carries an air of magnificence that is completely at odds with the story about a sick man at the end of his days. We love his performance, which is always funny and sometimes poignant, and we understand everything his character goes through, but ultimately Brown’s celebrity gets in the way of the depiction of a regular old “cobber” we should feel sorry for.

Alison Whyte plays Frances with a lovely balance of strength and gentility, and while her role makes life choices that might not be entirely clear, the actor manages enough conviction and solidness to sell us her story. Noteworthy in the support cast include Harriet Dyer who does not miss any opportunity for comedy, and Andrew Tighe who makes good use of his physicality and costumes to carve out a very memorable character. Tighe brings authenticity and lightness to the production, and we anticipate his every appearance.

The relevance of Travelling North‘s staging today is not immediately relevant. Its themes of family, marriage, ageing, and seachanges unify many of our lives, but this 35 year-old play struggles to make a fresh statement about the Australian experience. It does, however, showcase some of our idiosyncrasies as a people, and is an occasion for us to excel at quite a bit of self-deprecating humour.