Michael Gow’s most recent play, Once in Royal David’s City, opens with the central character, Will Drummond, engaging directly with the audience, plunging headlong into the past and present of his domestic story with great aplomb. Gow demonstrates here, through Drummond’s existential and Marxist beliefs, a key element of Brechtian theatre, central to the play’s structure, whilst utilising the idea of ‘social truth’ to highlight major themes of contemporary life. It is a skilful technique cleverly applied, opening the door to all manner of analysis and critical examination including some of the big issues that constantly plague us – life and death, loss and discovery, hope and fear.

Jason Klarwein and Penny Everingham in Once in Royal David’s City. All photos © Philip Gostelow

The language and rhythm of the play is expertly shaped with social and other themes intertwining, though the principal message about loss and how we react to it is always crystal clear. What Gow does remarkably well is to inject a sense of fun and humour into what could be a grim 100 minutes. He does this through lovingly realised and sharply defined characters, with whom we can both identify and empathise, in a series of vignettes that are a mix of linear and Brechtian styles.

Drummond’s mum, Jeannie, touchingly played by Penny Everingham, is a recognisable salt-of-the-earth person, fiercely defending her family from injustice and threats, helping her to believe that husband Bill (Steve Turner) is going to recover from the stroke that finally kills him, even though it is plain to see that he will not. When she arrives at the airport to meet Will for Christmas and is palpably sick, the same scenario repeats itself with Will now unable to accept this basic truth. These are convincing human reactions to such issues.

The naïve young teacher, Jess (Emma Jackson), who tries to entice Will to teach political theatre to her students, is a finely fleshed-out characterisation. Similarly, the overworked foreign doctor (Adam Booth) who brusquely tells Will that his mother’s cancer is terminal and the humorous portrayal of the bible-basher, Wally (Steve Turner), are believable characters. Jeannie’s loyal friend, Molly (Kaye Stevenson) and visitor Gail (Toni Scanlan) have warmth and depth, while the cameo of the skate-boarding boy (Adam Sollis) shows a poignant irony.

Memorable scenes include Will and Jeannie’s different views of the six-year old Will going missing at Bondi Beach and a slice of rehearsal for a clearly doomed production of The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Lady Bracknell (Kaye Stevenson) and Miss Prism (Toni Scanlan) have some of the best lines in the play. We also get to understand the play’s title when Will, in a sombre moment of realisation on Christmas Eve, listens to the pure voice of a boy soprano from Kings College, Cambridge.

As the middle-aged Will facing his demons, Jason Klarwein’s performance is first-rate.  He seems to have nailed the complexities of Will on every level – from the idealistic pro-Marxist to the self-centred director, from the glib snobby response to modern culture to the anger and disbelief at his mother’s condition.  He is amusing and serious in equal measure, showing both compassion and despair.  Jason’s Will grapples with his art, with his shifting politics and with what he will do next when work and family are lost to him. He is at his best in an emotional hospital scene when his mother is dying and in the delivery of the compelling Brechtian speech to the school, together with its delicious feedback commentary afterwards.

Jason Klarwein and Adam Sollis  

Sam Strong, in his first year of programming as Artistic Director at Queensland Theatre, is also making his long-awaited directorial debut here with this co-production between Queensland and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company. It is an auspicious start. This is a clear, well-paced and sensitively directed work, emotionally charged yet marvellously poignant and compassionate. He elicits finely realised performances from his cast, while highlighting Gow’s moral questioning of the societal changes that are taking place in our modern world, within a framework of Brechtian philosophy.

The production is assisted by a well-designed modern, streamlined open set by Stephen Curtis using curtains to cut the stage size down when required. Setting Jeannie’s hospital bed in a tiny recess area at the back, denoting distance and perhaps seeing it as an unwelcome intruder, was a nice touch.

Ultimately, this is a thought-provoking, beautifully crafted play with excellent all-round performances.  As well as bravely taking on some of the bigger issues that we face both politically and within society, it is also an examination of our daily intellectual and emotional lives. Will quotes Julius Sumner Miller at the end of the play with his mantra Why is it so?  The play never attempts to answer this question for us, but it does give us considerable food for thought and is satisfying on many levels.

Once In Royal David’s City is at Queensland Theatre until May 14