Cloudstreet review (Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne)

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For an unadaptable novel, Tim Winton’s cherished Cloudstreet sure has been adapted a lot.

Just a couple of years ago there was the admirable opera version (State Opera of South Australia). The inevitable prestige television mini-series (Foxtel) landed in 2010. There was even a radio play (ABC Radio National) back in the ‘90s.

The most celebrated, of course, is the 1998 play, a landmark production developed out of Neil Armfield’s Belvoir St in Sydney, which has taken on a mystique to match Winton’s metaphysical melodrama. After touring Perth and Melbourne, plus New York and London, there hasn’t been a new production mounted since.

Cloudstreet suits the stage, in some ways, where audiences are more willing to embark on flights of fancy. It’s in these moments where director Matthew Lutton’s brand-new production, which opened at Malthouse Theatre last week, really soars. It suits the screen more, perhaps, due to its head-spinning jump cuts and decade-long narrative span. Lutton’s production doesn’t make it any less halting.

In fact, it suits neither form really. It feels here, at least, and I didn’t see the original production, like an exercise in adaptation rather than an organic piece of heart and soul theatre. All the elements are there — the heightened kitchen sink drama of families and neighbours, the nostalgia-soaked Australiana of fledgling nationhood, all eminently bingeable and wonderfully theatrical — without any real demand for your attention and emotional engagement. Like an early-’90s TV mini-series before we really got serious about small-screen storytelling.

It doesn’t make enough tough choices about what to leave out, spending too much time telling rather than showing with exposition-heavy narration.

That, I think, is the fault of the play, all-too-faithfully translated to theatre by the American screenwriter Justin Monjo and the late Australian dramatist Nick Enright, rather than this production. It doesn’t make enough tough choices about what to leave out, spending too much time telling rather than showing with exposition-heavy narration.

Not that it’s too long, necessarily, though at five hours (including intervals) to see both parts it will test the patience of some. It’s more that some of the many threads fray, or seem redundant to the tapestry altogether. Lutton shifts a few scenes around, to negate the tokenism of Indigenous bit-parts, but barely trims the story.

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Bert LaBonte and Natasha Herbert. Photo: Pia Johnson

I found much of the dialogue leaden, too. It unfavourably compares to the recent adaptation of another work of mid-20th century Australian literature, Ruth Park’s The Harp In The South, which at the Sydney Theatre Company by the pen of Kate Mulvany had the verve and wit to sustain its marathon running time. Only in the narrated passages, borrowing heavily from Winton’s more purple prose, does the lyricism really sing.

Lutton’s creative choices, meanwhile, can’t really be faulted. His staging is efficient and handsome. The namesake house, a character of gothic proportions in its own right, is conjured smartly by Zoë Atkinson’s deceptively simple set, with sliding walls dissecting the space. In a terrific magic trick, the water so central to the plot seeps through the floorboards and floods the space before emptying just as quickly. Paul Jackson’s lighting does a lot of the design heavy lifting. Each moment of magic realism is memorably inventive.

Bert LaBonté as the gambling-addicted patriarch, Natasha Herbert as his alcohol-addicted wife and Brenna Harding as escape-addicted daughter are all wonderful in their roles.

The (colour-conscious) 12-strong ensemble is generally well-cast. Though of the two clans that inhabit this haunted house, the Pickles family overawes the church-going Lambs through the strength of the performances. Bert LaBonté as the gambling-addicted patriarch, Natasha Herbert as his alcohol-addicted wife and Brenna Harding as escape-addicted daughter are all wonderful in their roles. Greg Stone is a fully fleshed-out Lamb elder, though his wife (Alison Whyte) feels under-written and Guy Simon is the somewhat limp central son. The pivotal role of intellectually disabled Fish Lamb, originally played by Dan Wyllie, is more appropriately played this time by Benjamin Oakes, a member of the insurgent Back to Back ensemble of neurodivergent performers, though his age and sensibilities never feel quite a fit for the character.

The endurance test of this work alone won them a standing ovation on opening night. There is real craft on display here, in acting and design. And real, palpable love for the material.

That it doesn’t quite add up to potent theatre only suggests to me it doesn’t much belong on stage in the first place.

Main image: (L-R) Guy Simon, Benjamin Oakes, Alison Whyte, Ebony McGuire, Arielle Gray, Mikayla Merks. Photo: Pia Johnson

Cloudstreet plays the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until June 16

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