Lamb theatre review (Red Stitch, Melbourne)

At the wake after his mother Mary’s death, Patrick sings.

It’s dawn. The day after I travelled down (up? over?) to Melbourne to see Jane Bodie’s play Lamb.

I’m tucked away in the attic by a window that looks out over my neighbour’s paddock. The sheep are huddled together against the rain. There’s a lot to think about.

Like Pinter’s Betrayal and Bodie’s earlier piece, A Single Act, this story plays out backwards and over two generations, from Mary’s death back to early in her relationship with Frank.

In fact, like anything complex when you unpick it, the plot is fairly simple. Frank and Mary had a sheep farm and three children, Kathleen, Patrick and Annie. 

And unfulfilled dreams.

While the first half of the play is solid, detailing Annie’s unwilling return to the farm, Patrick’s new found singing voice and future prospects for the farm, it’s the second half that reveals the rawness at the heart.

In a way we’re primed for a disaster; incest maybe? a brutal slaying? maybe Kathleen will turn out to be Annie’s mother (their respective ages aren’t clear).

I was hoping for…news of Dad’s being a, a secret Mason, or a…repressed homosexual, or the tiniest sniff of her, of Mum, having an affair… says Patrick.

Annie’s the one that got away, becoming a singer of some success it seems. Patrick has run the farm. He’s good at it. If he can just keep ahead of the next drought. 

You were always part of the farm. You were wanted.

I was needed.

He looks out for Kathleen too, she’s the eldest. 

As a child, Kathleen wanted to be a sheep. At one point she calls herself ‘ill’. The other characters skirt around the ‘right’ language to define her:

She’s a…fucking child blurts Patrick.

But she’s also abrupt, direct, wise and prone to speaking with deadly, mordant precision. Of the three, she’s the only one who actually knows her own worth.

The weather had turned for Lamb’s opening night so there were times where in the little Red Stitch theatre in St Kilda, you couldn’t quite determine whether the storm was real or contrived.(Sound design Justin Garran. And god.)

In that small space, the production design (Greg Clarke set and costume; Efterpi Soropos lighting) necessarily plays with scale. Life is compressed, as it were. But it’s illustrative just the same. Despite the talk of distant fences, the size of the farm, this tightly packed kitchen (slash pub) with furniture from every decade since the ‘30s we’re hunkered down in feels about right. Around the kitchen table seems like a fine place to regroup.

Shelter from the storm.

As both Patrick and Frank, Simon Maiden is terrific. (Perhaps a bit more sunburn around the back of the neck – all those fair-skinned freckle-faced farmers have a high tide mark there – and where’s his hat?!) He hits both the bewildered obtuseness of a ‘bloke’ (is this about, you… being a feminist?) and the kind of ingrained quiet despair that keeps the suicide rate among farmers and farm workers high.(The gently harrowing image of the merinos weighed down in the dam will stay with me.)  

The likeable quality that seems to characterise him as an actor, makes Frank’s unreconstructed-male bulldozer capacity to plough over all objections the more frustrating:

I don’t want to stay here, Frank, I… can’t, stay, in this place

‘Course you can

He insists. And later:

It’s my body, my decision

No it fucking isn’t! 

Hints at a potential for violence we fear.

Bridget Gallacher plays Mary and Annie. As Mary she is strong, convincing; her dreams spelled out and the stalling of them only gradually uncovered by her children.

What if I had other plans?

And with the last-shall-be-first structure of the piece, our foreknowledge leads to some truly gut punching moments.

I don’t want to die here Frank!

She once cried. And now she has, dissolving into dementia.

Gallacher’s Annie isn’t quite there yet. She’s pitched at demand rather than plea and comes across as entitled rather than desperate so that, especially compared to her brother, her inner demons seem less disquieting, and they shouldn’t. I’m pretty sure that will settle with performance, but some of Annie’s text seems a bit clunky, a bit expository. She’s at her best here in her moments with Kathleen.

As Kathleen, Emily Goddard’s performance is a gift.

The songs (music and lyrics Mark Seymour) throughout underpin the story. And they’re beautiful. And beautifully performed. Keening lullabies; songs of love, death, drought, despair.

They’re not quite seamlessly worked in though. And someone needs to work on the stagecraft behind slinging the guitar over your head and moving the capo. It’s a bit clunky at the moment.

The end of Lamb spells hope, choice. But it also feels like an elegy.

The family farm seems a haven not long for this world.

How long, how long can it hold out against the wind, the drought, the fire, the loneliness?

You haven’t really lived IMO, if you’ve never seen a country sky by night. And director Julian Meyrick closes with a rotating sky blazing with stars.

It’s a fragile, beautiful piece.

At Red Stitch until December 13

Image: Simon Maiden, Brigid Gallagher, Emily Godda. Photo by Jodie Hutchison

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