Review: Book Of Days (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 8 – Aug 9, 2014
Playwright: Lanford Wilson
Director: Elsie Edgerton-Till
Actors: Amelia Cuninghame, Gael Ballantyne, Simon Davey, Kate Fraser, Jeannie Gee, Mark Langham, Brendan Miles, Alex Norton , Alyssan Russell, Geoff Sirmai, Joel Spreadborough, Kyle Walmsley
Photograph © Bob Seary

Theatre review
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is referenced in the play. Lynch’s film opens with idyllic shots of a country town with smiling firemen and little children crossing the road under the guidance of a lollipop lady. Very soon after, the camera zooms into a decapitated ear, stranded on a field, and we burrow into the dark and sodden world that lurks just beneath the blissful provincial life, complete with menacing bugs and sopping dirt. Lanford Wilson’s Book Of Days is about the beautiful township of Dublin, Missouri, where its residents’ Caucasian appearance are made even whiter by a hundreds shades of beige and khaki (thoughtful costuming by Jacqui Schofield), and everybody lives in states of tranquil ignorance, reveling in the comfort and tradition provided by the local church. Dublin’s peace is disrupted only when a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan comes to their community theatre. Its leading lady experiences an awakening that leads to unprecedented conflict within its community, and true colours emerge.

Elsie Edgerton-Till’s direction of the work is inspired and innovative. Each character is distinctly established, but they function as a harmonious team, and all 12 are individually interesting and memorable. The use of space is instinctive and dynamic. Georgia Hopkins’ set design is minimal, but actors are always cleverly positioned in the background to create subtle tableaux that add energy and dimension to scenes, and to manufacture an elegant aesthetic for the production. The show is entertaining, provocative and intriguing. Edgerton-Till speaks intelligently to her audience, but she has also successfully put together a production that is consistently, and surprisingly, engaging.

The ensemble is formidable. Every role is vivid, and every actor is accomplished. There are a number of moments that would benefit from additional rehearsals, but this is a very polished team, with a feeling that each personality is just right for their part. Simon Davey is a fantastic villain, with evil motivations and a desperate emotional world. His James Bates is a convincing creation, but the actor is careful to prevent any hint of endearment that could arise from his sometimes childlike behaviour. We believe he is horrible, and we wish the worst for him. His mother Sharon is played by Jeannie Gee with charming buoyancy and a painful naiveté. Her performance is lively and amusing, and her sense of humour plays at the dangerous precipice where the divergence between sincerity and irony are not always clear. Ruth Hoch is the Dublin woman who takes on the role of Joan of Arc. Kate Fraser’s portrayal of Ruth is precise and exciting, although her personality shift from encountering Joan could be more pronounced. The role has some complex and abstract scenes, and Fraser shines in those. The clarity at which she conveys the script’s meanings is commendable and delightful.

Book Of Days contains big ideas, but they do not come down on us like a sledgehammer. Its plot is classically structured, and we are swept away, completely captivated by its host of fascinating characters and their narratives. Edgerton-Till resists the temptation to turn the show into an edgy piece of theatrical experimentation, and lets Wilson’s concepts speak for themselves. What happens in Dublin implicates religion, sexism, and parochial hypocrisy, but the play’s politics are detailed gently. The main thing is the story, and it is a hugely satisfying one. All the other important stuff come a little later, but they stick around for a good while.