Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Flatpack Life - University Dramatic Society (3 May 2016)

Have you ever wandered through a large Scandinavian furniture store with a gnawing sense that something sinister was happening behind the plastic insert tab a into slot b facades? What the general public and Dan Brown have failed to realise is that conspiracies run far deeper than Opus Dei. Yes, the greatest force for evil throughout history has been the ever present tentacles of Mobler, a company so named to avoid inevitable lawsuits from the folks at Ikea who are really touchy about their all pervasive criminal past. To keep prices low and dominate the market worldwide Mobler has secretly been smuggling the most exotic and dangerous substance known to man into Australia. Yes, that’s right, fruit.  

Wait, what... fruit? You heard me. Not being an economist I’m not sure how that works but stay with me here...

Into this viper’s den of deceit, the innocent Bjorn, fresh off the plane from Sweden, arrives with dreams of meeting the public’s low cost, pre-packaged furnishing demands while indulging in really good meatballs. I mean the kind of meatballs that make you forget your name (foreshadowing a key plot point so, um, spoiler alert!). He immediately falls for an AFL loving, ballsy customs agent due to the demands of the plot – did I mention the bio security threat of fruit smuggling? Together they... well, he uncovers an illicit shipment of foodstuffs which, in true corporate fashion, leads to a promotion to keep him silent. Except that his conscience then gets the better of him and he tries to leave. Meanwhile our battery toting, nipple frying heroine and love of his life, Rhonda investigates the disappearance of her comic sidekick Beatrice who has stumbled across the truth. Eventually our heroes are saved, evil empires toppled, and meatballs consumed with gusto.

Okay, so the original Book by Matt Dixon and Ralph Thompson doesn’t make a lick of sense and it all descends into James Bond spoof-style silliness with over-the-top villains, smarmy henchmen, more ocker sheilas than an episode of Kath & Kim, and a bland hero wearing sandals and knee high socks. Despite this there are some genuinely funny moments due to a couple of pivotal performances and the sheer absurdity of it all.

The songs, lyrics also by Dixon and Thompson, aren’t particularly memorable and the singing talent on display is relatively weak. A key issue on opening night was the poor sound balance that made the often-times trying to be too clever lyrics difficult to be heard. The Music by Jackson Griggs is a mix of muzak style musings befitting the setting and an almost cabaret lounge feel at times. It is well played by a five piece band including Griggs on keyboard and conductor Ben Hogan on organ. The most effective number was a rap-like interrogation of a hapless smuggler.

There is a twenty strong ensemble that begin the show with the title song, customer greeting smiles firmly fixed in place. The song is reprised two more times including the ending which is quite amusing as we learn the fate of all the characters. Otherwise they felt woefully under-utilised except for one moment when Bjorn tries to leave Mobler and is encircled by the ensemble blocking his path and ultimately engulfing him. I would have liked to have seen more of this direct involvement in the action to add movement, colour, and scale. If you’re going for the absurd do it big and with a flourish!

The show is stolen by Harry Goodlet as the elderly Magnus and especially Erin Craddock as Beatrice. The former creates an unintended highlight after a prop malfunction during a song and dance number. Thinking fast on his feet Goodlet uses the mishap to hilarious effect. There was also a sense of unpredictability about his performance that added to the laughs. I was never quite sure what he was going to do.

Craddock is flat out funny from the get go. Her wise-cracking custom officer sidekick with mean girl attitude and a fondness for “inter-textual references” that range from Grease to Reservoir Dogs steals every scene she is in.  

Nina Heymanson gets to vamp it up as the corporate villain while her henchman Sven played by Nicholas Morlet is amusingly creepy. Emily Gale brings a perkiness to faithful employee Boghild and Lewis Buchanan is effective as a corporate middle-management buffoon (we all know the type).

In the lead roles, Lucy Rossen portrays Rhonda with a straight ahead, no frills earnestness that works well in combination with Craddock’s showier Beatrice; while Caleb Donaldson inhabits the naive Bjorn with a pretty boy blandness that suited a character with pretty much no agency in driving the narrative forward.

This is sporadically very funny but the deeper we went into the production the more it felt like a sketch revue show than a cohesive musical. Directed by Rupert Williamson with Musical Direction by Ben Hogan, The Flatpack Life is on at the Dolphin Theatre on the UWA campus until 7 May

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