Surrounded as we are by an overkill of heroic or tragic war stories in this ANZAC centenary, it’s a relief to have a new play that looks at war from a different perspective, and for Queenslanders much closer to home.Danny Fisher, a Brisbane boy, is just entering puberty, and like all boys of his age is obsessed with the idea of war, and especially the Air Force. The play by Matthew Ryan for the Queensland Theatre Company is set in the early 1940s when the threat of a Japanese invasion is imminent, and the local kids, not having actually experienced war, are excited. Danny wants to emulate his big brother Frank (Conrad Coleby) and be a fighter pilot, and can name almost every aeroplane he sees in the sky.
But for all his dreams of war, he is a dreamy writer, much to the disgust of his rough-verging-on-brutal father (Hayden Spencer again shows his splendid versatility here), but supported by Veronica Neave as his emotionally fragile mother Annie, who loves him, but not as much as she dotes on his older brother. When Frank goes off to war and is killed in the bombing of Darwin, Annie begins to fall apart, and her eventual breakdown is one of the most moving stories in this multi-levelled play.
There is also feisty defiance of the zeitgeist from Danny’s friend-but-not-girlfriend Patty, another outsider with her leg in a calliper, who welcomes the Japanese threat and in her pubescent rebellion determines that she will become a geisha girl when they invade. Harriet Dyer, who makes her Queensland debut in this role, shines in this back-story of the strength that suffering can bring, and when she and Danny are attacked by a crowd of local louts, gives as good as she gets, and shows up all the boys, including Danny, as the wimps they are.
Local favourite Dash Kruck (A Tribute of Sorts, Elizabeth– Almost by Chance a Woman, The Bitterling) pictured below is a perfect Danny, dreamer, writer, excited little boy, with the first rumblings of sexual awakening leaving him confused, excited but totally inefficient. The scene where he tries to undo a bra from outside a blouse is hysterical, and his fumbling first kiss with his brother’s old girlfriend Rose (Lucy Goleby also shines) scares the hell out of him.
It’s not easy for a grown man to convince us that he’s a 14-year-old, but Kruck is one of the few actors who can pull it off. But it is his boyish enthusiasm for aeroplanes, the war, and his hero pilots where he does his best work, getting that awkward adolescent mix of crassness and naive innocence to perfection.
In a very clever doubling of roles, director Iain Sinclair has Conrad Coleby play first Danny’s brother Frank and then an American pilot Andy, so that one hero-figure merges effortlessly into another, and also adds another dimension to the plot, the actual invasion of the US army, led by General Macarthur. He and his Australian rival Sir John Monash are played as caricatures so that they don’t overwhelm the plot, but they bring up the very real anger felt by Australians that the American soldiers were over-paid, over-sexed and over here, their offers of nylon stockings, Coca-Cola and chewing gum tempting the Aussie girls away from the local boys. By the end of the play the focus has shifted, so that the question becomes Who is the real enemy?
There’s enough historical detail here to satisfy the most avid war expert, and enough local references to make it highly appreciated by a Brisbane audience, some of whom were around at the time, or learned the story from their parents and grandparents. The now-demolished dance hall Cloudland is still remembered fondly, and even the mention of it was greeted in like manner by the audience; while another Brisbane icon, the good old under-the-house, features in the set almost as a character in itself.
Stephen Curtis’s design is admirable, with the focus on the typical open area under the Brisbane stilt house, full of old furniture, clothes-lines, general storage, sporting equipment and the Victa mower, and most of the action is set here. The in-house action takes place on a minimalist bare floor above, uncluttered by furniture, and the outdoor scenes on the stage in front, an economic use of space that creates a multitude of venues in a most impressive way. It’s a very clever and convincing set, augmented by David Walters’ intelligent lighting which uses uplighting through the floorboards to suggest the spookiness of flares and night terrors, and foreground spotlighting of the shadow play of Danny’s rough wooden model planes.
This is a splendid production in every way, with nine fine actors making the most of a versatile and multi-faceted script, all held together by appropriate but not overwhelming design and lighting. It deserves to travel around Queensland at least, and even interstate it might remind the Deep South that for stay-at-home Australians World War II was in fact a war in the north, and that the Brisbane Line made it clear that to the rest of the country most of Queensland and the Northern Territory were considered expendable. Cause for a modern civil war, perhaps?