Once in Royal David’s City

Belvoir St Theatre, February 12

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Michael Gow’s new play Once in Royal David’s City is full of big ideas yet intimate at the same time, a piece that plays with form, and throbs with love and anger.

Theatre director Will Drummond (Brendan Cowell) is feeling somewhat adrift and in search of meaning after the death of his father (Anthony Phelan). Pulling out of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, he plans to spend Christmas with his mother Jeannie (Helen Morse) at a friend’s beachside house.

When she suddenly collapses, Will dupes himself into believing that it’s not that serious. In fact, she is dying of pancreatic cancer. Faced with the awful truth, Will sits by her hospital bed talking to her.

Locating the play right from the start as taking place in a theatre, Will sometimes addresses the audience directly and introduces scenes in Brechtian fashion.

Through his interactions with an eclectic range of characters – a school teacher who wants him to lecture on Brecht, his mother’s best friend, a woman consumed by grief and a Bible-basher who both visit his mother in hospital, a teenage boy fleeing family arguments over the Christmas Dinner table – Gow takes on a host of weighty subjects: Brecht and political theatre, Marxism, rampant consumerism, capitalist exploitation, the power of church music, mortality, grief and love among them.

Eamon Flack directs a clean, clear, eloquent production on Nick Schlieper’s pristine, open set that makes the Belvoir stage look bigger than I’ve ever seen it. A circular, white curtain around the space covers quick scene changes, while the cast performs harmonised Christmas carols (music by Alan John).

Flack draws excellent performances from his impressive cast, which also includes Helen Buday, Maggie Dence, Harry Greenwood, Lech Mackiewicz and Tara Morice.

Will is a huge role and Cowell pulls it off magnificently with a raw, compelling performance that captures Will’s pain and his rage at the world. Morse is radiant as Jeannie, seeming to fade into bird-like frailty before our eyes when illness hits.

I’m not sure that all the different elements of the play come together completely. A couple of scenes seem to add little, while Will’s final school lecture feels like an all-too-obvious device for Gow to vent without really shocking us into fresh insight – though he makes his points.

However, much of it is extremely moving (there is plenty of robust humour too), particularly the scenes between Cowell and Morse. The encounter between Will and the teenage skateboarder (Greenwood) is also unexpectedly poignant, while Phelan is terribly touching as an awkward, gentle godbotherer with a surprising insight into the gospels.

Once in Royal David’s City runs at Belvoir St until March 23. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16

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