Once We Lived Here at the King’s Head Theatre

1 May , 2014  

On the farm Emoh Ruo in the Australian outback Amy (Melle Stewart), the oldest of three siblings, looks after her sick mother Claire (Simone Craddock). Amy runs the place which has been plagued by a long-lasting drought on sheer force of will. She has sacrificed a lot to her determination to maintain the family home which was once built out of nothing. On a sweltering hot weekend, they all come together again and old demons and questions of guilt rise from the dusty outback earth.

Although Amy is carer, cook and handyman, all rolled into one, she becomes the object of scorn when her sister Lecy (Belinda Wollaston) descends on the old home. Now living the glamorous media life in the city Lecy fails to understand why her sister is holding on to the hard and gainless farm life. One sister unable to change her ways and one changed so much she is completely unrecognisable – that is the scope of character development in this piece and its textured exploration of the women’s desires and worries is a welcomed change on a theatrical stage. Stewart’s Amy with her self-denying earnestness provides a great contrast to Wollaston’s initially vapid Lecy who gets all the good laughs and outrageous lines. And then there are the men. Brother Shaun (Iestyn Arwell) struggles with his past and seems unable to take his future into his own hand. When the ruggedly handsome Burke (Shaun Rennie) visits the farm long needed change in the family’s life kicks into motion. Rennie gives a grounded performance linking the other characters desires and anxieties without becoming a cypher.

Mathew Frank’s songs swing between very conventional modern musical theatre style and a slightly-off Sondheim experiment. They tell the story efficiently and among them are some really beautiful pieces. The energetic ‘What The Hell’ is a lot of fun and the ballads ‘As Far As The Eye Can See’ or ‘Patch Of Dust’ are genuinely touching. A good book by Dean Bryant although some of his lyrics are quite a mouthful for the performers and sometimes the sincerity of the story takes over and the drama can feel a bit excessive. Effective lighting by Seth Rook Williams and an impressive set by Christopher Hone that changes from patio to roof top within a matter of seconds conjure up the Australian outback on the King’s Head’s small stage.

After playing in Australia and America it took a good five years to bring this show to a UK stage and with its specific focus on family farming it’s easy to see why it would be a hard sell for European audiences. However, the well-drawn characters will manage to reel you into this foreign world and if you didn’t think a quip about a water pump can be suitable end gag for a musical wait until you see Amy’s redeeming moment. She douses herself with the sparse water – is change after hardship possible after all?

This is a very solid production allowing a glimpse into life in the Australian outback that’s neither cliché nor trite. Not all the humour and topics translate smoothly to British audiences but there is enough meat around the family story with its strong female characters to make this a watchable show. Add some good tunes and you have a rather enjoyable evening.

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