When C. J. Johnson’s The Young Tycoons first saw light of day, in a production at the old Darlinghurst Theatre in Potts Point, in September 2005, Kerry Packer was still alive. Just. Voyeuristic fascination with Australia’s answer to the Montagues and Capulets, the Packers and Murdochs, was probably at an all-time high. It’d been four years since the failure of One.Tel, a majorly expensive disaster by the prodigal sons of the barons. James had been divorced from Jodhi for a few years. Lachlan had been married to Sarah for six years. There was a friendly rivalry between the heirs.
Thanks to things like Jamie’s fast-tracked Barangaroo casino, Rupert’s helping of the New Of The World scandal and the shameless bias of several News Limited mastheads, these first families are never really out of the news, much of which they own. Nonetheless, interest has waned somewhat. Thus, the time is a little out of joint, making this new production of an ageing play a little like revisiting a classic Williamson. Mind you, Johnson has done his level best to keep it topical, even pre-empting the recent buffo between James Packer and David Gyngell, another chip off an old, distinguished block. And yet it feels a little retro.
This is largely deliberate: writer and director (Michael Pigott) have stated as much in their programme notes. And the quaint inclusion of clunky, prehistoric Macs (remember, this was set in a time years before iPhones and Facebook, and tweeting was something only birds did) lends a nostalgic bent, referencing technologically simpler times.
Of course, no playwright in their right mind would risk running the gauntlet of litigious slings and arrows by literally including Packers and Murdochs, so here we have thinly-veiled Voglers and Warburtons. Ted Vogler (a well-cast Lawrence Coy) doesn’t have the physically imposing frame of Kerry Packer, but he’s a pocket rocket nonetheless; a fortress of tough-minded machismo, coaching and cajoling his dim-witted son, Kim (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) with a view to his taking the reins of the empire. He’s also pushing him towards a marriage to his rather sharper model girlfriend, Sally (Paige Gardiner).
Meanwhile, just across town, Liam Warburton (John Turnbull), a mogul with a false pretence of decorum, is rubbing down his own son, Trevor (Andrew Cutcliffe), in preparation for the big league media match. Trev’s hooked-up with Sherilyn (Gabrielle Scawthorn) and marriage is on the cards. To accommodate his ambitions for Trevor, Liam outs his righthand man of twenty years’ standing, Donald (Terry Serio), relegating him to the rank of consigliere.
Briallen Clarke plays Kim’s “press secretary”, Kylie, while James Lugton is the hardbitten business journo, Dave Grolsch.
Scenes are short and sharp and more in the manner of a television mini-series, with clumsy graphics, like supers, flagging content. There’s a swoop of barrel-vaulted plywood sufficing as a corporate HQ aesthetic, with two doors through which actors are more-or-less constantly entering and exiting (set design is by Katja Handt). Stephen Hawker’s lighting design is effective enough. The pace is good, but one can’t help but feel Johnson has ill-concealed his further ambitions as an erstwhile filmmaker. There’s classy music from Elvis Costello and droll original composition (Murray Jackson), in a jazz mode, that interpolates and subverts melodic phrases from the indelible World Series Cricket theme.
Yes, there are some quality ingredients, though the script itself, notwithstanding the odd humour homer, never really tickles with wit.
This was opening night, but given that several previews preceded it, slickness wasn’t as much in evidence as it might’ve been. Coy got off to a bit of a wobbly start, but hit the jackpot later on, with one or two scenes that were right on the money. Many, if not all, of the characters lean towards cartoonish, though when one thinks about their real-world equivalents, they don’t seem all that exaggerated. Turnbull, too, seemed a little uncertain of his character and never, at any point really, completely convinced me. Lembke-Hogan and Cutcliffe confidently nail their roles as the fraught offspring. Lugton is his ever-reliable self, delivering quite persuasively as the insider, working twenty-four seven for a scoop. Clarke is especially strong, but Johnson hasn’t really thought through or fleshed-out the roles proffered to Scawthorn and Gardiner: to their credit they make the most of what they have. This lack of real insight and empathy with regard to the female characters is regrettable. Best on stage might just go to Serio, though, who really took on as a veteran newspaper executive.
The Young Tycoons is certainly an agreeable and enjoyable evening of theatre, but lacks a little surety and finesse directorially. It’s buoyed by a good, if not great, performance standard, but doesn’t really do anything or go anywhere in any way new or surprising.
Despite its superficial cheek, it’s pretty straight, middle of the road and inconsequential.
Featured image by Noni Carroll