Onward Christian soldiers


By Beatrix Christian
Sydney Theatre Company
At the Wharf Theatre, Sydney

Review by Mark Stoyich

Beatrix Christian's Fred is a long play. Actually it's two plays — or possibly three. What begins as a brittle, fairly funny murder mystery turns into a speculation on the meaning of life, with a bit of sex-farce of the slamming door variety.

Although it begins with the discovery of a corpse in a suburban backyard, there is in fact no murder and very little mystery. "Fred" doesn't exist — that's the name given to the corpse by Pam (Kirstie Hutton), who discovers it beneath her Hills hoist.

This leads to much philosophical thought on the nature of life and death, while her neurotic, dippy vegetarian sister, Monica (Claudia Karvan, a TV actor playing a TV actor) dresses sexily and throws herself at Detective Rose (John Adam), who is investigating the case.

The detective is unsure of his sexuality until he is strongly attracted to Pam and Monica's housemate, gay Polish surgeon Miles (Jacek Koman).

The other non-suspects in this non-murder are Monica's friend Antoinette (Jacki Weaver, to bring in the middle-aged crowd), an unhappy career woman desperate to have a child with her much younger and duller husband, hardware shop owner Rod (Matt Day, to bring in the young crowd).

Completing this set of neurotic characters of the '90s (collect 'em all, kids!) is Aaron Blabey as the sex-mad luxury used car salesman Barry, who is constantly trying to bed Monica, while helping his friend Rod avoid having a baby with Antoinette (most of the comedy develops from this).

Until the end of the first act, most of this is pretty good, as the characters, one by one, start finding their own corpses, all unrelated to the first, except in the more cosmic sense.

The problem with the play begins when these caricatures have to become real characters in the second act, putting a strain on the actors which they are not all up to. The pastiche detective story, obviously just a device to get in the punters, is more or less abandoned, and these mostly irritating people come to grips with their personal problems in the soap opera manner so familiar on our stages.

This being the '90s, everyone is redeemed in a way redolent of family values. There's even a feel-good song and dance ending, which is more feel sick than feel good. There is much tossing-in of current concerns — identity crises, teenage drug deaths, chaos and gay couples (unconvincingly handled). Through Miles, the Jewish surgeon, even Nazi concentration camps are brought in.

The inconsistency of tone and genre is possibly a symptom of too much workshopping, a disease endemic in Australian theatre.

Beatrix Christian is an interesting writer. Her play of a few years ago, The Governor's Family, was a partly successful attempt at re-imagining Australian history, but it, like Fred, was too long and bore the scars of incoherence that a bad bout of workshopping can leave on the patient.

As befits our democracy, the cast of Fred acts as an "ensemble", but the star of the evening is Aaron Blabey, who plays his sleazy con man with a mannered, over-the-top twitchiness, like a Restoration comedy character on speed.

Who else remembers him from The Damnation of Harvey McHugh, the last attempt by the ABC to make a genuinely innovative comedy before the funding dried up? Perhaps his skill is due to the fact that he is neither a NIDA graduate like Hutton, nor a movie actor like Day.

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