Life As We Know It | Carriageworks (Pic: Heidrun Lohr)

If one were cynical, one might suggest putting seven seniors from south-western Sydney, apparently without any performing experience, in a work of theatre is a recipe for a grant. I hope this wasn’t uppermost in the creator and artistic director of Urban Theatre Project’s mind when she conceived it. Mind you, when the company’s philosophy is to afford people who don’t typically have a voice just that, economic rationalism has to be firmly held within one’s consciousness.

And the fact is writer/director Rosie Dennis has delivered something remarkable, on a number of levels. By no means “professional” in every sense, but remarkable.

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By definition, of course, the work can’t be fully professional, since it draws almost exclusively on the performative gifts, or lack thereof, of ordinary people; proud, long-standing pillars of the Minto community. To be frank, their skills are limited. Then again, these people are elderly and have managed to rehearse and recall long, dense tracts of  text. They sing, dance, dialogue and monologue. So let’s not be too judgemental. I mean, could your mum or nanna or grandpa, pull it off? It’s a formidable ask, after all: not only to take oneself out of one’s element to become an actor almost overnight, but to uproot oneself from one’s familiar suburban enclave to perform in front of an expectant opening night audience at a major Sydney venue; a feat of uncommon courage, at any age, let alone a late one.

In fact, it’s this very lack of “professionalism” that accounts for much of the charm of the piece. There are fumbles, forgotten lines and cues, requiring prompts. You can almost see the learnt text flashing before the eyes of the actors, as if they’re reading, rather than reciting. But, despite the fact it’s clear none are going to be vying with a Cate Blanchett for best actor honours, the heart invested is palpable and moving. Vicki Andrew, Daryl Cooke, June Hickey, Judy Murray, Ivan Sevroric, Jenny Shillingsworth and Dorothy Weir deserve immense credit for conquering their fears and apprehensions, breaking out of comfort zones that become cosier still as we get on. One lady I spoke to after seemed genuinely relieved by the friendly faces and warm reception with which she and her fellow cast were met.

There’s something puzzling here though. There have been a number of theatre works that draw upon text and speech from “real” people, which is then catapulted into something dramatic by real actors. But this is the opposite. Dennis has written gently, emphatically and poetically for non-actors. The text is worthy of a UN Media Peace Award. It would’ve made more sense, however, either to have written, or workshopped an outline around which these fine people might’ve extemporised, or to have taken the pithiest of their thoughts and feelings and to have put them in the mouths, hands and bodies of actors. This would’ve still achieved the objective of giving oxygen to voices not normally heard, while presenting something more dramatic.

As it is, much of the charm is in the written text and, again, the awkward, but earnest attempts to get it across. The rest lies in the hands of the collective audience and its capacity and preparedness to make allowances. On opening night, it seemed to err very much on the generous side. Still, its reassuring to know there are organisations that embrace a whole-of-Sydney approach to theatre making and presentation. Carriageworks, UTP (based at Bankstown Arts Centre) and Campbelltown Arts Centre (which, through Michael Dagostino, commissioned this piece) all deserve an ovation for their adherence to this outlook and dedication to ensuring projects that embody it are brought to fruition and a wider public.

Track 8 (but one of the yawning spaces at Carriageworks) has been festooned  with a vertical garden, bursting with lettuces, herbs and, for all I know, other green edibles. It’s imposing, in the friendliest, most homely, semi-rural kind of way. Other than that, Dennis’ design concept, realised by Joey Ruigrok van der Werven and David Hawkes, consists of the odd table, chairs, as well as the obligatory and indispensable teapot and china. Oh, and an “animated” bird, named Robin. And a large cross.

The jumping-off point for the script is Daryl’s funeral. Drably clad mourners assemble in suitably sombre fashion. One begins the eulogy, only to be interrupted by Daryl himself, clutching a clipboard. It’s a rehearsal, you see. Daryl, it becomes clear, has ambitious ideas for his big day and has recruited his friends to make sure it all turns out to his liking. Unfortunately, when Daryl walks on, his back remains to us, which means we can’t really discern anything he says. Amateurs or not, this is basic stagecraft that so easily have been addressed.

What’s sobering and attractive here is the easy pace of life reflected by these retirees; it made me hanker, nostalgically, for seemingly endless summer holidays spent with my maternal grandparents on the then comparatively scantly populated central coast, just north of Sydney. A cuppa at sparrow’s; chores; big breakfasts outdoors; fishing; visiting; chatting; indulgent afternoon teas; sitting on the patio, swatting flies and attaching passers-by. I’m sure similar associations would’ve been made by others present. The reflection alone is enough to make us question the original, underpinning rationale for the digital age: computers and such were going to free us, expanding our leisure time to the utopian point at which we’d hardly know what to do with ourselves. Yeah, right.

The metaphorical nexus between the garden and relationships is hardly new, but never seems to lose potency. The garden is a place, to be sure, that provides the excuse we need to while way time, to nurture, grow and assist other living things in growing. Dennis’ soulful work is fertile soil, too, in which to seed thoughts about living and how to do it; living with someone else, long-term, and how to do it; dying and how to do it. Sometimes, the best we can do is simply survive. What helps is the love and support of friends and when these seven seniors take to the stage, meditating on meaning, we all feel a warm embrace. Enhancing it is a thoughtful soundtrack, much of it performed live by Matthew Steffen and Toby Martin, sharing acoustic and electric guitars, bass and vocals.

Central is Gerry and The Pacemakers’ rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Sometimes we do, of course. But while there are people on the planet like the creators of this work, we need never feel it for long.

The details: Life As We Know It played Carriageworks on March 13-16.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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