It’s hard to imagine two more different shows, though each has a firm grip on the popular imagination. The Other Place by Sharr White is the first play for quite a while to be directed for the Melbourne Theatre Company by Nadia Tass and it is the riveting story of a woman who is losing her mind. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the other sort of Australian production, directed by Roger Hodgeman, the head of the MTC before last, and it derives from the film musical of the Ian Fleming kids’ book about the flying car and has a lush, catchy score by the team who wrote the songs for Mary Poppins.
The Other Place, with utterly expert direction from Tass and a powerful performance from Catherine McClements, shows that the Australian theatre can take a contemporary piece of dramatic mesmerism and do it at the highest level. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seems to have acquired the cars and paraphernalia from Adrian Noble’s famous production at the London Palladium but it doesn’t represent the highest (or more intricate) level of musical theatre. But it’s a fun show for the kids, gorgeous and full of gusto, and Roger Hodgeman’s production is at the higher level of straw hat we often get from John Frost as producer of this sort of thing.
The Other Place is about a medical scientist who starts going to pieces. Isn’t her oncologist husband having an affair with the doctor she is being made to consult who seems remarkably like a psychiatrist? And what about the phone calls to the daughter who never wants to talk to her and the all but unspeakable man in her life? At a pivotal point in the play she finds herself in the other place, the holiday house where she found solace, and the past comes screaming back at her like a nightmare and her present becomes a recapitulated jumble of memories reconstrued.
The Other Place is a fresh, razor-sharp American play which has just transferred to Broadway in the past couple of weeks with Laurie Metcalfe (the sister in Rosanne) as the woman who hits up against the horror of the self’s splintering and reconfiguration.
The MTC’s production by Nadia Tass, famous for her comedy films Malcolm and The Big Steal, is directed with great élan and power and it has an authority and restraint rare for the Australian stage. Tass uses an elaborate soundscape as we jump from the protagonist addressing a conference and finding herself up against it to bawling out her husband and various figures from her past and present.
The Other Place is partly a drama of moral complexities in which the woman confronts the phantoms and guilts of her past, partly a play about a predicament of which she is the victim. The potential collision between the two dramatic conceptions is handled with considerable dexterity by the playwright though there are bafflements here that come from an exposition which plays with enigmas to create a cross-genre between the psychological thriller and the medical drama. Catherine McClements as the woman anatomised is fierce and fiery with a great well of grief and longing, powerfully controlled and viscerally convincing. David Roberts as her husband has plenty of fussing, humane dignity if not quite the absolute outrage and pain the material might allow. Heidi Arena is versatile and expert across a range of roles though a little more visual differentiation would have been handy. David Whiteley shows what a fine actor he is in a set of all but thankless cameos, beautifully distinguished and etched. But this is Nadia Tass’s production and she shows a sweeping mastery of the stage. With its use of camera projections, its stark lighting and its unceasing command of dramatic energy and stillness, The Other Place shows how effortlessly this director can translate an overseas hit and find its natural idiom.
Other actresses — Helen Morse, Sigrid Thornton — might have found different, more loopy or lyrical perhaps softer aspects of the central figure, but McClements is remarkable and it is hard to imagine this production bettered.
What we need now is for our theatre companies to let loose Nadia Tass on the classics and the cutting edge.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of those delicious concoctions that puts itself beyond criticism. The title song is justly famous as a great knees-up number for kids’ voices and others. The score has a deep and highly defensible resemblance to Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s Mary Poppins, and if you can’t have a flying governess, why not an Edwardian flying car?
Roger Hodgeman brings out the glow and gush of the show with plenty of primary colour. The first night had beautifully judged performances from Beau Woodbridge (son of the tennis player) as the boy and Lucille Le Meledo (Debra Byrne’s daughter) as the girl.
Rachael Beck may not quite look the part as Truly Scrumptious but she sings like a goddess. There is plenty of affable camping around from Alan Brough and Jennifer Vuletic as the Baron and Baroness of Vulgaria (a pantomime cartoon of Germany) and Tyler Coppin is effectively creepy and charismatic as the Child Catcher.
It’s hard to know what to say about David Hobson as the inventor. The show is actually written for a comedian-dancer (hence Dick Van Dyke in the film) and the former lyric tenor of the Australia Opera is neither. He speaks and more particularly sings a bit too beautifully though he has a very likable stage presence.
This is not a production that invents a world of elaborate dramatic and choreographic enchantment for the benefit of any adults in tow, but Hodgeman does everything necessary to keep the kids enthralled.