Lamb (A New Play with Songs) review

An article about the theatrical performance Lamb, which features music and lyrics by Mark Seymour.

Author:  Tim Byrne, Time Out.

Date: 26 November 2018.

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Article Text

Jane Bodie’s play features new songs by Hunters and Collectors’ Mark Hunter

Early on in Jane Bodie’s new play Lamb, one character calls another out for using clichés; it must be a deliberate wink to the audience, or at least an acknowledgment that the play’s themes will feel familiar, because the central conceit is straight out of the theatrical cliché playbook. When their mother dies, three siblings come together to wrestle with the past and exorcise the family demons. In this case, one child returns after a long absence to the chagrin of the brother who remained behind. This idea has been in circulation so long it’s a bible parable. A writer would want to have some unique variations up their sleeve to dare tackle such a hackneyed theme, but Bodie seems either oblivious or very daring.

Youngest daughter Annie (Brigid Gallacher) returns to the family farm for the funeral of her mother Mary (eventually also played by Gallacher), to the discomfort of her older brother Pat (Simon Maiden) and the bemusement of the eldest, Kathleen (Emily Goddard). She’s had a very successful career as a singer, although she’s going through a “change in management”. Pat’s resentment initially seems two-fold; he’s pissed off that he’s had to manage the farm alone, and that he’s been the primary carer of their increasingly incapacitated mother, who suffered from dementia in the years before her death. It’s only when we meet Kathleen, who is developmentally disabled, that we realise Pat’s resentment is three-fold; after the death of their father years before, Pat has taken on the burden of care for everyone, while Annie has lived free.

Bodie is very good at the connective tissue that binds her characters together – some of the best scenes are about the most casual of moments, flouring some cutlets or sharing a beer – but she has a tendency to labour her points. Pat’s resentment is a primary example: when we first meet him, it’s after the wake, a few days after Annie’s arrival, but his rudeness towards her seems fresh and raw. The play inches back in time a day or so every scene, but his impudence never changes, never modulates. Eventually, it begins to grate. The first act is almost crippled by this dirge-like emotional register.

The second act is better, largely because it opens in the distant past, when Mary was forming a relationship with the kids’ father Frank (played by Maiden). We know it’s the past, because the fridge is more old fashioned and Whitlam’s dismissal is on the TV. This scene develops and upends a number of the themes established in the first act, about creativity and ambition, about the sacrifices we make for family. But again, Bodie finds comfort in clichés: from the intellectually disabled character who functions as a seer; to the taciturn parent who secretly idolises their child; to the idea of music as a shorthand for psychological growth. It isn’t just clichéd, it’s sentimental and manipulative.

Thankfully the performances, under the direction of Julian Meyrick, are terrific and go a long way to filling in the texture and the credibility the play lacks. Red Stitch are an actors’ ensemble and they prove their worth precisely when material like this fails to coalesce. Maiden struggles initially with the impossibly narrow dramatic range of the part, but he brings conviction and warmth in the second act, and his performance as the avuncular but unpredictable Frank is spot on. Gallacher is gorgeous as both Annie and Mary, subtly suggesting inherited qualities and intergenerational echoes. Goddard is magnificent in a tough role; Kathleen’s wit, her stubbornness and her compassion are filtered through the lens of her mental illness without it feeling like a case study or a sop to the neurotypical.

Mark Seymour, of Hunters and Collectors fame, has written the songs, and they are excellent even if they never feel fully integrated. Greg Clarke’s set and costumes are sensitive without making an enormous impression, and Efterpi Soropos’s lighting is serviceable. The company can do this kind of naturalistic play in their sleep, but it does feel a little like treading water. Lamb was developed by Red Stitch’s INK writing program, so it’s a shame it sits so squarely in their comfort zone. New work should feel new, should tackle the familiar in unexpected ways. Like the sheep that provide the family with their livelihood, this is a play that too willingly follows the beaten path.