Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Uncle Jack - The Blue Room Theatre (6 May 2014)

A young lad is sent by his father to a property in the bush to toughen him up one summer. Here he meets 'Uncle Jack' who is a World War 2 veteran still traumatised by the events of that terrible conflict.

When I was young, 8 or 9 I think it was, my paternal grandfather died. I don’t remember much about him other than he was a stern man and that I was most likely scared of him. What I do remember is that after he passed away the extended family descended on that house looking for booty, a sad indictment to be sure. Three discoveries that fascinated me, however, were: an anti-tank shell, the explosive hollowed out; his war medals; and a collection of newspapers from around the time of WWII stashed away in the long, dark (and I’m sure, haunted) porch that ran down one side of the house. I claimed the anti-tank shell as a prize though I didn’t really understand its significance at the time. We were a long way away from graphic depictions of war on both the large and small screens. But it was a tangible reminder of what my grandfather must have experienced.

I mention this as it was a strong recollection after watching Uncle Jack. Memories I hadn’t thought of in decades. That is the power of this play. Interestingly though, I was talking to a young man at the bar afterwards, himself a storyteller, who liked the play but felt it kept him at a distance as the situation depicted was not one of his experience. In this it may be a quirk of generational differences and I wonder what the girl’s high school group there on the night may have thought as well. For older generations it will no doubt have great resonance and meaning.

The play itself is more a character piece than a true narrative story. Uncle Jack (Quintin George) hits the booze as hard as he works the property and we see the source of his trauma in flashbacks to events in northern Africa, El Alamein and Tobruk prominent amongst them. He is a true Aussie cockie with a sly sense of humour who mentors young Douglas McNab (Ben Hall), the city slicker with the ‘sheila hands’. McNab has concerns of his own as his father (who Jack fought alongside) is disappointed in the boy. The expectations of the father weigh heavily.

As Jack teaches Doug the ways of the land and how to work it they slowly form a strong bond. Jack teases Doug about the ‘comely’ girlfriend who writes to him but it’s clear he misses his wife and own boys who remain in Busselton, another source of his alcohol fuelled pain.

George and Hall play off each other very well which is what makes this all work as basically it relies on the authenticity of their interactions in the absence of any traditional plot mechanics. George gives a very physical performance as the troubled mentor who knows his way about the bush but has constant demons lurking. He captures the larrikin spirit and ‘ocker’ in Jack but doesn’t shy away from showing his terror and vulnerability as well. Hall has the dual roles of the na├»ve kid who needs to grow up and the father (as soldier) in the flashback scenes. He also narrates the authentic wartime diary entries that allow insight into the northern Africa campaign. This gives Hall the opportunity to play stern and strong when needed; wide-eyed and, in many ways, sweet and exuberant, when dealing with Jack. The pairing works well.

The action takes place mostly on a dirt-filled, circular platform that revolves when the actors put their back into it, again emphasising the physical nature of the bush. The sound design is excellent in recreating the battles in the flashback scenes. There’s even a piano that adds texture to key emotional moments with Hall in particular showing off a fine singing voice, no surprise as both actors are graduates of WAAPA’s musical theatre program. 

Written by Ross Lonnie featuring extracts from Lieutenant Colonel William (Bill) Lonnie's real wartime journal. Directed by Soseh Yekanians, Uncle Jack is on at The Blue Room until 10 May.

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