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Canberra Today 2°/6° | Monday, May 20, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Mother and Son and more as Tempo turns 50

Mother and Son cast… clockwise from top left, Nigel Palfreman as Arthur, George Belibassakis as Robert, Rina Onorato as Liz and Cheryl Browne as Maggie.

By sheer coincidence, I reviewed the first production by Tempo Theatre for ABC radio’s 2CY in 1974 and it’s hard to believe that the venerable company is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. 

The birthday show will be a slap-up production of Mother and Son in a new and updated stage version written by Geoffrey Atherden and directed by long-time Tempo member Michael Weston. 

In 1974 I remember having fun critiquing what was considered an edgy choice, the musical Bye-Bye Birdie.

I caught up with Tempo founder Joyce Macfarlane recently by phone, who told me how she and her staunch allies, musical director Rose Ianno and Charles Oliver, worked hard to form a society specifically to perform musicals that were “modern”. 

A trained scenic artist from London’s theatre, Macfarlane, landing here as a housewife and mother, looked around for some stimulation and joined Canberra Philharmonic. 

But finding that its staple was still Gilbert & Sullivan, she was keen to do something edgier and founded a new society and “called it Tempo, because it would be up-Tempo,” she says. 

Then the director of the Canberra Theatre Centre, the late Terry Vaughan, offered her The Playhouse, where Bye-Bye Birdie was staged. Macfarlane has long since moved to Sydney, back into the professional theatre design world, but the group has presented 116 productions.

Chales Oliver went on to make his name as Hairdresser to the Stars and as Fagin in Tempo’s show Oliver!, just one of many memorable 20th century musicals, including Camelot and The Pyjama Game, Man of La Mancha, Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. These glory days of musical theatre are still celebrated through a Tempo Theatre dining group on the first Friday of every month.

But Tempo Theatre changed around 1990 and a different regime took over, changing its focus to the comedies and murder mysteries for which the company is now known, of which Macfarlane says: “I think it’s brilliant, I’d like to see some of their plays”. 

One of that new cohort was Michael Weston, who joined in 1996, then a year later was thrust into the presidency when the organisation had only $900 in the bank. 

A touring production of Dimboola, the first of many, put money back in the coffers. They also performed one-act plays, comedies and pantomimes written by Weston himself, not least Aladdin and Jackaroo and The Beanstalk.

His Christmas radio plays on Radio 1RPH, which began around 10 years ago with Cyril the Cherub Saves Christmas, have become a standard part of the calendar.

“It’s a good thing that we’ve been able to adapt to the changing theatrical environment in Canberra, and detect what the audience likes to see,” Weston tells me, adding that he was keen to do an Aussie show for the 50th anniversary, had seen Mother and Son at The Q and enjoyed it a lot.

Briefly, in this updated version, Arthur has found a new girlfriend and plans to go on a holiday with her. But will he be able to leave his mother and can he rely on his philandering dentist brother Robert to care for her while he is away? Also, what is happening with Robert’s relationship with his wife Liz?

This will be the last production for Weston, who suffers from a muscular dystrophy condition called FSHD and is finding it “a bit of a challenge directing from a wheelchair”. He claims he will retire after Mother And Son, but will be back to direct the 2024 Christmas radio show, Wallaby Bob’s Aussie Christmas.

“I’ve loved every moment I’ve had with Tempo,” he says. 

Present-day president of Tempo Jon Elphick joined around the same time as Weston. With 21 or 22 plays behind him, he’s the mastermind behind the Agatha Christie thrillers seen regularly at Belconnen Community Theatre and tells me he’s obtained the rights to Love From A Stranger, based on Christie’s 1924 short story Philomel Cottage, and he plans to stage it at the end of October.

Elphick has been president of Tempo for “I can’t remember, 10 years I think” and tells me, “I think we offer theatre for the common man, we don’t do cutting-edge theatre or theatre with a social message, we just do theatre for the ordinary person who wants to come and be entertained.”

Tempo Theatre, Mother and Son, Belconnen Community Theatre, Swanson Court Belconnen, May 24-June 1.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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