On Centre Stage
With Douglas Kennedy.
Bastard Territory by Stephen Carleton.
Directed by Ian Lawson.
Queensland Theatre Company presentation of a Jute Theatre Company production.
Bille Brown Studio, South Brisbane. Season ends April 16.
Bookings:www.queenslandtheatre.com.au or 136 246. Duration: three hours including two 20 minute intervals.
Brisbane-based playwright Stephen Carleton’s new work, Bastard Territory, is a sometimes amusing, always engaging, dysfunctional family drama set in three time zones and two settings.
The three acts take the audience from Port Moresby in 1967 through to Darwin in 1975 and 2001 as dark skinned gay Russell (Benhur Helwend) attempts to untangle the central mystery of his life.
Who was his father and what happened to his mother after she walked out on the family when he was a boy?
Carleton’s play opens in 2001 with a grown-up Russell setting the scene for a dramatic family saga, which literary sprawls across several decades.
Russell knows his upright colonial bureaucratic Dad Neville (Peter Norton) wasn’t his father, and so does the audience when we see him dancing with his Mum, Lois, a former airline hostess, in Port Moresby in 1967.
The couple seem to be blissful in love as they dance to the music of the time – the play’s soundtrack is a retro highlight– but the romance is fleeting.
Neville is constantly going away, while local busybody and general nuisance Nanette (Suellen Maunder) takes Lois under her wing and introduces the rather lost soul to the delights of the local arts theatre.
Within a short time we learn that Lois (Lauren Jackson) has formed firm friendships with three local men, political Marius, artist Cliff, and the family house boy Pita.
Anyone of the three could be Russell’s father.
Helwend, who is a magnetic stage presence, plays the three maybe fathers as well as Russell as a young boy and grown man.
The actor gets away with the various crossovers by using props and distinctive mannerisms, which work a treat, as does other double ups by the actors.
Eventually, Lois’s waywardness and what at first appears to be a mysterious tragic incident, involving Neville, forces the couple to flee Port Moresby for Darwin.
The second act introduces the audience to Russell as a child and his best friend Aspasia (Ella Watson-Russell), who feature as an adult in the final 2001 act.
This is the time when Lois flies the nest and Russell begins to question his identity, but it’s the ageing Neville turned conservative pollie (played by Steven Tandy) in the third act who reveals some truths.
All the actors bring somethings special to the table – with Tandy and Maunder its age and experience and Helwend and Watson-Russell its youth plus vitality, and Norton (who also plays Russell’s longtime gay lover) and Jackson presence – and director Ian Lawson keeps things moving splendidly.
Playwright Carleton, who gave us The Narcissist and Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset, uses a clever mix of theatrical references throughout the play.
The production Lois performs in at the beginning of the saga is J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton and there’s several references to the works of Tennessee Williams.
Carleton’s characters might appear somewhat predicable and familiar but the dialogue is well crafted and sustains interest throughout.
Bastard Territory is the theatrical equivalent of a page turner in novel writing as well as an introduction to times and places many of us might not be familiar with.
Jute Theatre Company is based in Cairns, so it should come as no surprise that Carleton’s work had its first outing in Cairns and Darwin in 2014.