By Adam Rafferty
A brand-new musical from the team at Working Dog, (i.e., the producers of television’s Utopia and Frontline, films The Castle and The Dish, and 2014’s wildly successful MTC play, The Speechmaker) … you had me at new musical, but this is an unexplored genre for the team behind our favourite shows. Of course they’ve got the skills to write heart-warming and hilarious comedy, but can they crank out a toe-tapping tuner to sit amongst the works of Eddie Perfect, Tim Minchin and Kate Miller-Heidke? Thankfully, musical theatre lover and one of Working Dog’s founders, Tom Gleisner, (also the host of Have You Been Paying Attention) had recent life experiences that allowed him to instinctively know that a show set in an aged care facility was ripe with storytelling opportunity that was perfect for musical exploitation.
The Pine Grove Aged Care home is short on staff and looking to cut costs, so they come up with a scheme to address both. Enter Finn (Slone Sudiro) who answers their ad offering free board to a college student in exchange for light duties. When he arrives, he meets Rose (Evelyn Krape) a new resident just checking in, against her better judgement. She’s lived a full and busy life and has no plans of stopping, but a heart condition puts her in need of care. Finn, like many starting out in life is struggling to succeed and just needs a break to get things going. These two opposing forces of nature have a profound impact on the otherwise depressed and oppressed residents and staff of Pine Grove, living under the thumb of heartless facility manager Mrs MacIntyre (Anne Edmonds).
Overworked, yet diligent, aged care staff – the freelance to perm Gloria (Christina O’Neill) and ambitious 23-year-old Ruby (Vidya Makan) – are already stretched looking after their residents. Now they have Finn and his uni-student attitudes towards timeliness and responsibility to deal with too. But the charm of the young music student, in combination with the rebellious Rose and her coaching ‘never give up’ worldview not only win over the staff, but the residents as well. Like artist Lesley (Jackie Rees) and the object of her affection, widower Doug (Frankie J Holden), delusional former actor Roland (John O’May), mobility scooter menace and kleptomaniac Betty (Maria Mercedes), and the incommunicative Sal (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i). Working against them all the way, Mrs MacIntyre makes cost-cutting moves, like getting rid of fruit, creeping dinner time earlier and earlier, cutting back activities and refusing to have the centre’s bus repaired.
To anyone who’s ever had a relative living in aged care, the stories played out here – while heavily exaggerated for comedy – are immensely relatable. The incredible lives and tales to be shared by our elderly, the life enhancing opportunities brought about by younger and older generations living and working in the same space and the sadness of the inevitable loss as residents succumb to disease and old age. The use of music to brighten lives connects these stories seamlessly within the familiar format of a musical.
It’s true to say the structure and plotting of this play is very predictable and expected, but there’s something endearingly reassuring about that. Knowing where you’re heading means you can sit back and enjoy the reliable humour and glorious melodies on offer. For composer Katie Weston’s songs are consistently uplifting and easily enjoyed earworms, reminiscent of the work of Jason Robert Brown and even Clark Gesner. And there’s nothing like a beautifully paced and placed song in a musical to bring a tear to the eye!
Director Dean Bryant injects full-bodied energy into the production from the outset, energising the largely one-set staging and defying the expected quietness of an aged care facility. Dann Barber’s set does have some tricks up its sleeve that provide beautiful visual metaphors and make you wish for more. Charlotte Lane’s colour-coded costume designs craftily use a palette that shows the difference and influence of Finn and Rose on the residents and staff of Pine Grove.
Newcomer Slone Sudiro is charming as Finn, with a glorious vocal tone and cheeky comedic style, his character is a lovely contrast to the more serious Ruby, who Vidya Makan delivers with strong vocals and great warmth. There’s an overall pleasing quality to the performances, including Christina O’Neill’s trademark consistency, and it’s wonderful to see all the senior performers sharing the stage and their inimitable skills with the younger cast. Particularly John O’May’s constant use of industry lingo as Roland is a hoot, and Maria Mercedes’ double act as the Chef brings on shades of Lunch Lady Doris from The Simpsons.
The highlight of the show is Anne Edmonds’ hysterically wacky performance of Mrs MacIntyre who steals the show every time she’s on stage, wringing a joke out of every last syllable of the script. Her big production number “Everything I Do” is gloriously villainous and is sure to become every Aussie character actor’s favourite audition piece. Mrs MacIntyre is almost a panto level baddie, which makes her hilarious, but does mismatch the way the rest of the show is played, which is tonally quite scattered.
Gratifyingly, this is outweighed by the grand sum of entertainment which, while structured around expected story beats, is embodied by winsome humour and heart-string tugging moments which make this high-quality musical a highly recommendable ticket.
Images: Pia Johnson