Review / ‘Dud’ play draws uneven performances

“Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” written by Kurt Vonnegut, directed by Cate Clelland, Canberra REP at Theatre, until August 4. Reviewed BY LEN POWER

 

Rowan McMurray, Jess Waterhouse and Peter Holland

KURT Vonnegut wrote 14 novels and five plays, but he is best remembered for his novel “Slaughterhouse 5”, which also became a memorable film.  

“Happy Birthday, Wanda June” had a short run on Broadway in 1970 and I must be one of the very few people who suffered through the now disappeared 1971 movie of it.

Very much a product of its time, the play is a wacky rant about masculinity with all the things that are wrong with human nature and society thrown in as well. You can probably find some relevance in it – nothing really changes – but it doesn’t alter the fact that the play’s a dud and by the end of the first act, it has said all it has to say.

Director Cate Clelland has given it a sumptuous production with a highly detailed and amusing period set and Helen Wotjas has had a lot of fun designing the hideous 1970s costumes.

Michael Sparks and Jess Waterhouse

In the 1970 movie, “Myra Breckenridge” the action is intercut with clips from old movies to comment on the action or just for the hell of it. Clelland uses the same idea in this production with snippets of period music while the cast freezes. It was amusing initially but the frequent interruptions to the flow of the play started to pall very quickly and the pace overall was too slow, anyway.

Performances by the cast were uneven. The usually reliable Michael Sparks and Peter Holland started out well but needed more help from the director to give their increasingly boring characters more light and shade in the second half.

David Bennett was very effective as Colonel Looseleaf Harper, adding a human warmth and sadness to a basically crazy military man.

Jess Waterhouse and Nick Dyball were fine as mother and son and there was good support from the other actors.

The most interesting question about “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” is what motivated Canberra REP to stage it.

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