Louis Nowra’s story of a madcap production of a Mozart opera made in a mental hospital blends rueful humour and gently piercing observations of early 1970s Australian culture into a beloved theatrical feel-good.
Writing in the early 1990s (Belvoir staged Cosi’s premiere in 1992), Nowra harks back to his own experiences as a rookie theatre-maker, distilling it into the callow figure of Lewis, played here by Sean Keenan.
He arrives at the hospital unprepared in every sense, armed only with the idea of producing a Brecht play. But he’s reckoned without the enthusiasm of long-time resident Roy (Robert Menzies), a manic character whose life’s ambition is to stage Cosi fan Tutte, despite having access to only one musician (zonked on tranquilisers most of the time) and a cast of first-timers who can’t act, sing or speak Italian.
Can this crackpot dream be realised?
You bet it can. It’s never really in doubt. But the ups and downs this fractiously funny team experience on the way more than compensates for the predictability of its outcomes or feelings of thematic déjà vu.
Directed by Sarah Goodes in a burned-out black box of a set (by Dale Ferguson), this MTC-STC co-production draws on the talents of an acting ensemble whose choices encourage the audience to laugh with Nowra’s characters as they navigate the absurd situation they find themselves in, rather than at them.
Menzies dominates with a richly detailed portrait of Roy, a haunted figure whose rollercoaster highs and lows propel the play.
Bessie Holland shines as the garrulous, love-hungry Cherry, whose affections can turn to threats in an instant.
Glenn Hazeldine quickly draws sympathy as Henry, the failed lawyer whose every sentence is a struggle. Katherine Tonkin, by contrast, grows into a tower of unconventional strength as the obsessive-compulsive Ruth.
Rahel Romahn is particularly good as the sex-obsessed pyromaniac Doug, whom we can’t help but like despite hearing what he did to his mother’s cats, and Gabriel Fancourt has some good moments doubling as an over-medicated piano player Zac and Nick, Lewis’ smug and smarmy chum.
Esther Hannaford paints a subtly shaded portrait of an unrepentant drug addict while adding vocal shine to the ensemble’s operatic efforts after interval.
Keenan’s Lewis, whom at least two women seem to find irresistible, fills out very convincingly as the show slowly (very slowly, sometimes) unfolds, flowers, then vanishes with a light being switched off.