The Unknown Soldier

Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre, May 16

Sandra Eldridge and Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sandra Eldridge and Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company has made its reputation with delightful stage adaptations of well-known books and stories for children and young people (aged three to 18).

The Unknown Soldier is its first brand new play, written by the company’s co-creative director Sandra Eldridge to honour the centenary of World War I.

Aimed at young people aged 10+, it’s a moving two-hander, examining dark themes including the horror of war and the devastating impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder without shying away from their seriousness but handling them with a light touch.

The play uses a simple device to move between two eras and stories. Thirteen-year old Charlie is staying with his pacifist Aunt Angela because, as we learn during the course of the play, his soldier father has returned from Afghanistan with PTSD and needs help.

To try to distract the bored teenager from doing little but play a computer war game, his aunt produces an old suitcase she has bought without inspecting its contents. Looking through it, they discover letters from a young Australian soldier called Albert, who fought in France in the Battle of Fromelles, written to his mother.

Felix Johnson plays both Charlie and Albert. Fascinated by what he reads in the letters, Charlie starts doing research on the Internet to find out more about Albert and his fate.

Eldridge plays Aunt Angela and Grace, a volunteer nurse who goes to France in search of her son, who is missing in action, and tends to the wounded Albert.

Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Felix Johnson. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Eldridge researched the piece by examining war archives, diary extracts, books and poetry. Without the play ever feeling like a lecture, she conveys historical information about the Australian involvement in France in World War I and the horror of war both then and now.

She explains what PTSD is and how it can affect soldiers and their families. She introduces the Unknown Soldier and explains a little about who he is and what he represents. She also includes a brief section about the Australian War Memorial and touches on the meaning of ANZAC Day.

Her great achievement is to include all this within the context of an involving drama in which the information emerges naturally from the parallel stories she has created, and to convey it simply and clearly.

She has also leavened the play by folding in some gentle humour, with laughter on opening night at Charlie’s boredom, his frustration with his aunt’s slow Internet and his dislike of her organic, vegetarian cooking.

Matt Edgerton directs with great clarity on an impressive set by Anna Gardiner: a lounge room backed by a wall with jagged edges as if it has been damaged in a bomb blast, with little sections of the wall used to reveal various lighting effects. Matt Cox’s atmospheric lighting design and David Stalley’s sound help us imagine the scenes in the trenches, even though the home furniture is still used. It’s simply but effectively done.

Johnson moves convincingly between 13-year old Charlie and Albert (merely adding a slouch hat) and his revelation of Charlie’s fears for his PTSD-affected father is very touching. Eldridge is a warm, reassuring presence as both Angela and Grace.

My only quibble would be that Charlie articulates and understands ideas that might be a bit sophisticated for a 13-year old. A friend suggested it would perhaps be more convincing if the character were 15. But that’s a minor qualm.

There weren’t a huge number of young people in the opening night audience, and quite a few of those who were there were younger than 10, so it’s hard to gauge what the target audience would make of it. I imagine they would respond very positively to a thoughtful play that handles difficult themes with a great deal of integrity and care, and which seems to me to be well pitched for young people.

The Unknown Soldier plays at Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre until May 22. Bookings: www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8264 9340

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The Credeaux Canvas

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 3

James Wright and Felix Johnson. Photo: supplied

James Wright and Felix Johnson. Photo: supplied

In his program notes, Les Solomon recalls producing the Australian premiere of Keith Bunin’s 2001 play The Credeaux Canvas at the Stables Theatre 14 years ago, having seen it not long before in New York.

Apparently the production (which I didn’t see) was a huge hit, breaking box office records. That doubtless emboldened him to produce the play again now, this time with Bryce Hallett, though there seems no compelling reason to do so.

The play has an entertaining enough plot – though it does rather peter out towards the end. But it doesn’t have the emotional depth for its characters and themes to make a terribly strong impact.

Set in a grotty attic apartment on New York’s Eastside, the play focuses on three struggling young people.

Winston (James Wright) is an artist finishing his MA. He is clearly passionate about art – and about obscure French artist Jean-Paul Credeaux, in particular – though whether he has what it takes to become a significant artist himself is questionable. At this point anyway, his work is derivative, with “come back in five years” the common response from those in the know.

Winston shares the flat with Jamie (Felix Johnson), who has fallen foul of his well-off art dealer father and is working in real estate, which he hates. Also there on a regular basis is Amelia, Jamie’s girlfriend (Emilie Cocquerel), who has come to New York with dreams of being a singer but who finds herself waiting tables and performing at ever more crummy, far-flung venues.

Jamie has just attended the reading of his father’s will and is livid to learn he has been left nothing. On the way home, however, he bumped into Tess (Carmen Duncan), a very wealthy art collector, who was a client of his father’s and a scam suggested itself to him.

Jamie has told Tess that his father left him a lost Credeaux from the artist’s moonlit nude series. Winston will paint a fake work in the style of Credeaux with Amelia as his subject. Tess, who he disses as having more money than art sense, will be taken in and pay them a fortune.

Winston and Amelia eventually agree. To put Amelia at her ease, Winston disrobes as well, leading to a sexual triangle. (There is also a brief hint that Winston may be attracted to Jamie.) What unfolds will sorely test all of them.

James Wright, Felix Johnson and Emilie Cocquerel. Photo: supplied

James Wright, Felix Johnson and Emilie Cocquerel. Photo: supplied

Bunin doubtless means to explore the nature of fraud and fakery as it relates to the characters as well as the canvas in question. Do any of them have the talent to achieve their dreams? Are they deluding themselves? What is the true nature of the various relationships between them? But though the dialogue zips along, there isn’t enough in the writing to convincingly examine this in any depth and the production doesn’t bring the kind of nuance that might expand on it and further illuminate the subtext.

It should be noted that there were setbacks during rehearsals. Director Ross McGregor (who directed Solomon’s earlier production) came in at fairly late notice, as did Duncan.

Performances aside, some of the play is overwritten, particularly the swathes of talk about art (which comes across mainly as the writer showing that he knows what he’s talking about).

There’s a terrific design from Emma Vine and strong moments from all the performers – Cocquerel is particularly impressive – but overall not enough subtext, nuance and emotional depth for the play to really fire.