‘Cloudstreet’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by June 23, 2017

‘Cloudstreet’ is the multi-award winning book, written in 1991 by Western Australia’s most respected, contemporary author, Tim Winton. Tim has written a total of 28 novels and short stories collections since 1982. Although Winton often adapts his works for stage and radio, this version of his mildly adult play was adapted for the stage by Oscar nominated, Nick Enright – in conjunction with Justin Monjo. Sadly, Enright, a very talented playwright and director died 14 years ago of a melanoma.
In 2003, this winner of both a ‘Miles Franklin’ and a ‘Western Australian Premier’s Book Award’, was voted the favourite Australian novel by both Winton’s playwright peers and the enthralled readers. Nine years later, it was then included in the top ten Australian books to read before dying!
In the late 1990s, Enright’s original 5-hour adaptation of the play was presented in the Duyfken boatshed in Fremantle.
Presented at the Old Mill Theatre, at the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road in South Perth, the season of this magnificent three-hour play runs for a couple of weeks until 1st July. It has its curtain up at the slightly earlier time than normal, 7.30 pm. There is one matinée; it is at 2.00 pm on Sunday 25th.

The scene is a rambling, crumbling house in Cloud Street, Subiaco, over the period 1943 – 1963. This era covers the horrors of events such as World War II, the Korean War, and the assassination of President Kennedy, mingled with the wonderful neighbourhood atmosphere and the Australian Dream of being a homeowner that existed at that time.

The set is a simple 20 cms high dais with smoke machine (built by Phil Barnett, Gino Cataldo, and Kit Leake). The props are few, mainly pine soapboxes and tea chests (Peter Nettleton, Kit Leake), but these along with an old balance, weighing scales were genuine relics of the period, well sourced. There was a dovetailed rowing boat and river fishing nets.
Daniel Toomath’s AV projection was outstanding. It is amazing how a projector situated high up on the lighting grid, and only 2 metres from the rear wall screen, can project a perfectly sharp, undistorted picture over the whole area – floor to ceiling. This also allowed the actors to stand upstage, near the rear wall, without casting a shadow on the picture. The fabulous photos chosen were exactly what were required to give an authentic atmosphere to the numerous locations.
Stage manager, Pete Nettleton, controlled the 18 actors’ entrances and exits perfectly. The performers acted as his stagehands, this led to flawless scene changes; most were instant, with the longest change being only 10 seconds. Much of the visual atmosphere of the play relied upon the lighting and sound. Sarah Christiner’s choice of sound effects was perfectly selected, and they were replayed without the commonly annoying ‘full volume to off’ without any fader control. The levels were subtle and melded into the vision. There were about 70 sound cues, from crickets to old steam engines. Great technical skills, possibly this year’s best sound.
The complex lighting design – 120 cues – was by John Woolrych. Every colour tone and illumination setting was carefully considered. Slick quality work. As always with John’s work, outstanding.

The Lambs are a poor, highly religious family. They live in Margaret River, where one night, the slightly nervous and shy father, Lester (Kit Leake) is net fishing with his sons, the introverted Quick (Nathan Hambly) and his ‘retarded’ brother, Fish (Oliver Kaiser). Lester’s exhausted wife, Oriel (Cynthia Pickering) is sitting on the riverbank with her daughters, Hattie (Rhiannon Cary), Elaine (Hayley Derwort), and Red (Chelsea Brickell). The oldest daughter, Hattie is nursing her new brother, Lon (played later as a 20 year old by Liam Crevola). Caught in the net, Fish almost drowns.
As the narrator (Gino Cataldo) tells us, being almost on the breadline, the Lamb family must leave the area and head for Perth in search of work and sustenance.
Even though the Pickles family are in a similar destitute position, their gambling, shirker of a father, Sam (Phil Barnett) squanders every penny. Injured at work, Sam is happy to lie back and do no nothing. Mrs Pickles, Dolly (Leoni Leaver) relies upon her good looks to make a few extra pounds on the side. Their poor, delicate young daughter, Rosie (Madelaine Jones) has to look after the house, clean and cook; the stress has brought on an eating disorder. Then, like a gift from God, Sam inherits some money and a wreck of a house in Cloud Street, Subiaco.
For cash, Dolly decides to take in lodgers, welcoming in the Lamb family. It is not long before 15-year-old Ted Pickles (Brad Albert) sees what a pair of wasters he has for parents, leaving home with his girlfriend Mary (Taylor Russert) – her father (Peter Nettleton) is furious and calls to see Sam. Ted’s intelligent brother, Chub (Hayden Tognela) tries to give moral support his Mum and sister against the manipulating father.
In a desperate attempt to become independent, Rose Pickles applies to work at a large department store with her friend Pansy (Nikki Di Camillo), but first she must get past the officious, head telephonist (Cally Zanik).
The audience becomes part of the two, intertwined families as they go through amazing highs and terrifying lows, with a community spirit that is sadly lacking today.

The incredible script and instantly recognisable situations make this play possibly one of the most demanding and complicated to direct. At first glances, one may think that it looks like any family ‘soap opera’, however, this rich script contains immense detail for every character, and how they all fit together in their domestic community jigsaw. I must be honest, even though Brendan Ellis has directed some very good plays, he is still a young man and I thought that this lengthy, multifaceted, but stunning Australian play may be beyond his capabilities. However, I was wrong – very wrong. Brendan and his assistant director, Gino Cataldo have selected an amazing cast. The cast were flawless in their delivery, perfectly paced, and presented a real depth to their characters – many of the cast had several personalities to establish in a few seconds. With an intricate three-hour play, often the performers’ concentration can drift, the pace can drop off and the odd fluff appears – not with this troupe, they were immaculate. The director used several entrances in the auditorium for entrances and exits; employed the walkway between the front row of the audience and the stage apron; thus, the audience became an integral part of the play. One felt slightly tense as a police officer searched for a murderer amongst the patrons. All of these clever tricks helped make us part of the two households.
Whether it was the ineffectual Lester, the introverted Quick, or the depressed Oriel, you could really connect with their emotions. Then there was a level of acting that is rarely seen in community theatre; Phil Barnett as the total irresponsible, self-centred father, Leoni Leaver as the randy and yet pathetic wife who had suffered a rough childhood, and her daughter Rose (Madelaine Jones) who likewise had never had a scrap of love or appreciation in her sad life. The other players gave solid performances, backing the main characters. Great teamwork and chemistry.
A special mention must go to Oliver Kaiser as the loving, but brain damaged son. Oliver must have really studied this part, memorising and conquering every nuance of nervousness, excitement and the particular mannerisms. A top rate performance well observed and stunningly executed.
Jenny Prosser’s costumes instantly conveyed the post-war period, and the poor economic status of the families. As the years went by, Jenny brought more colour and flare to the outfits. Excellent styling, attractively tailored and with great material choice.
Almost every night of the season was sold out within a couple of days of the tickets being released – perhaps you may be able to buy a ticket from a tout in the street. You will gasp and cry, or to slightly misquote Mem Fox ‘… If you have not seen Cloudstreet, your life is diminished’.