I’m not quite sure how writer Lachlan Philpott latched onto Ruth Flowers, aka Mammy Rock, the world’s oldest DJ. But her truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale (she died a couple of weeks ago) has certainly served his and Australian Theatre for Young People artistic director Fraser Corfield ends in developing a piece of theatre about the generation gap.
The real Mammy may be from the UK, but in Corfield and Philpott’s poetically-licenced version, she’s an Aussie (played by Valerie Bader). She’s not your garden-variety gran. Mabel is an all-singing, all-dancing, actively involved in musicals. She’s also awake to what her granddaughter Tracey (Clementine Mills) might be getting up to while out all night clubbing. She’s not naive, or behind the times, nor does she pretend to be and unlike Tracey’s mother, Mabel’s daughter, Kerry, an habitual worrier, half-expecting, as she stares through the prism of her half-empty glass, her daughter to turn up her toes after another big night.
Tracey, finding nothing interesting open in the early hours (‘the clubs are shut and the pubs are shit’), determines to pay Mabel a visit. Mabel knows it’s unlikely Tracey is up ’n’ at ‘em at eight am, unless she’s been up ’n’ at ‘em all night and issues a stock-standard grandparental caution about being careful, as Tracey’s about to go travelling overseas, on her own. When Tracey goes missing, Mabel takes off after her, without having a clue where she is. Her journey takes her as far afield as Kenya (in fact, for some reason, Africa’s where she begins), where she shows a photo of her granddaughter everywhere she goes, to no avail.
By and by, Mabel lands in Berlin, where Tracey’s been all along, except, ironically, they now just miss each other, as Tracey embarks on a train trip to Prague. They find each other again, of course, by which time Mabel’s stumbled on her mojo in the German capital. Not only have they, on their respective journeys, found each other, though, but themselves. Corfield-Philpott use this (whether based in fact, or not) quite unbelievable narrative conceit to espouse their thesis that behaviour acceptable and even embraced in younger people is frowned upon in those of a certain age. While generally true, Flowers’ wholesale celebration tends to put the lie to the theory. Or is it the exception that proves the rule? Still, I’ve heard a number of, er, older women complain of their ‘invisibility’, so it’s a subject worthy of challenge and examination.
Adrienn Lord has designed a disparate set, fashioned on different levels. Stage left is Mabel’s cosy apartment; perched on high is DJ, Jonny Seymour, half of Stereogamous (Paul Mac being the other). Together, they composed the sound track, while Seymour is responsible for sound design and live mixing. The one thing occasionally scarified acoustically, is dialogue, especially early on, when Tracey struggles to be heard (at least from the near-front rows where we were seated). But back to the visual. There’s what looks almost like a garage, which serves as a nightclub and DJ’s warehouse; the predominant aesthetic is cold, hard, concrete, steel; very Teutonic. Lighting tends to be kept at dim club levels by Benjamin Cisterne. The effect is on the bleak side, somewhat in contrast I would’ve thought to the uplift for which the script plumps.
The standout performance is almost certainly from Valerie Bader as Mabel; thoroughly convincing as the reluctant (in the sense, only, of succumbing, or not, to the stereotypes with which advancing years are burdened) granny. There’s a what-you-see-is-what-you-get naturalness about her that allows us to buy in. Clementine Mills (Tracey), who sports a dulcet English accent in person, betrays her well-spoken heritage to deceive us into thinking she’s a dyed-in-the-wool Aussie. Other casting is, shall we say, utilitarian, with a multitude of characters split between three very gifted young performers: Josh Brennan, Madeleine Jones & Brandon McClelland. Jones proves herself to be a very fine singer, as well as nothing if not versatile: now, she’s A Kenyan villager; then, a gypsy trying to sell her baby. It’s entertaining watching McClelland, a palefaced ranga, wrap his mouth around east African vowels. There’s not too much pretence to accuracy, which is ok, I guess, ‘though his lapses as Hank, aka Messerschmidt, the German dj, are more pronounced and a little less forgivable, since one then struggles with suspension of disbelief a little more than one should have to, especially given that characters change, without any real warning and no real costume changes to speak of, beyond the odd scarf, cap, or handbag. Brennan dons the last as Kerry and amusingly assumes the mantle of the furrowed-brow fretted, without any temptation to camp it up or otherwise overdo it.
Besides M.Rock being a vehicle for Corfield-Philpott’s hypothesis that the generation gap has eroded badly and rapidly (thanks, in no small part, to digital device preoccupations) and a way to shine a light on the possibility of dignity and self-determination at any age, it’s also an excuse to underscore the value of music in connecting one to another, be it individuals, races, religions, colours, creeds, or generations. In its delivery though (including rhyming couplets), it tends a little too much to the simplistic (if sweetly so) & patronising. Which isn’t to say it is entertaining, or warmly embracing. Just a little too much like the proverbial brown paper package tied with string Gran bestows on Tracey. Neatly packaged.