Polished performance of ‘Coarse’ comedy

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Poon River actors discover body in drawing room. Photo: Helen Drum.

Theatre / “The Art of Coarse Acting”, by Michael Green, Rupert Bean and Jane Dewey. At Canberra Repertory until August 10. Reviewed by JOHN LOMBARD.

“THE Art of Coarse Acting” takes the saying “the show must go on” to a hilarious extreme, with the fictional Poon River Players striving for theatrical greatness only to be betrayed by the props, the set, and each other.

Based on the books by Michael Green, this collection of short plays is a showcase of “coarse acting”, the bad acting and shoddy staging that can scupper an amateur play.

The actors wear frowns of serious purpose to highlight the thwarted ambition of the Poon River Players, even as they give us a comprehensive display of bad acting that includes everything from windmill arms to incomprehensible accents.

Director Chris Baldock enriches the play by encouraging the actors to show the personalities and relationships behind the gags. Overall, there was a sense that the actors were encouraged to co-create with their own ideas.

Steph Roberts links the unrelated plays as a fictive ‘director’, with her funny commentary building the lore of Poon River, the home of the prat awards and the big battered sav.

The best jokes are the most outrageous, for example Cole Hilder’s injured actor splashing the set with blood, Damon Baudin’s war hero struggling to adapt his performance to an upside down set, or a sequence from Baldock’s own experience where the revolving stage hijacks the show.

In one sublime moment, the actors are ordered to repeat a failed play, only to find entirely new ways to ruin it.

While the concept and execution are entertaining, these “coarse acting” plays have been superseded by imitators that improve on the formula.  Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” digs deeper into the character behind the chaos, and the “Goes Wrong” franchise has bigger and more audacious spectacle.

What these plays get right that is missing here is a sense of karma and “just deserts”.  To really laugh at these characters, we must feel they deserve to suffer. Mostly though, the Poon River Players are just some nice amateur actors doing their best in tough conditions. Cole Hilder heightened the comedy of his play by dropping an urbane mask to show a nasty streak, while a hilarious reveal explained Patrick Galen-Mules’ gonzo accents.

The plays on display are also extremely British, including cosy mysteries, period drama, WW2 heroics, and miners in the North of England.  We could take it as satire that Poon River idea of art is all English imports, but I would have enjoyed seeing what they would have done with something unmistakably Australian like “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll”.

There’s nothing coarse about this polished and inventive performance.

 

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