Kate Mulvany’s two-part adaptation of Ruth Park’s saga of an Irish Australian family is a mighty achievement, one that will likely be talked about in the same awed tones as Cloudstreet in years to come.
Opening in rural New South Wales in the early 1920s, Park’s trilogy – Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange – traces the saga of the Darcy family over 30 years, beginning with the awkward courtship of Catholic girl Margaret Kilker (played by Rose Riley) and larrikin Hugh Darcy (Ben O’Toole).
Mutually swept off their feet, the couple moves to Surry Hills (they are played by Anita Hegh and Jack Finsterer from this point onward), a warren of shanty housing in those times, where they lose a child and raise two more: daughters Roie (Riley again) and Dolour (Contessa Treffone).
It’s Roie and Dolour’s plights that Mulvany sounds most strongly and convincingly as each comes of age with the forces of poverty, class, faith and male violence ranged against them.
Part I begins with a broadly sentimental depiction of country town life, which director Kip Williams and his design team (David Fleischer and Renee Mulder) realise in a series of energetic, fluidly orchestrated sketches. Other than the large revolve centre stage, pretty much everything in this production is human-powered, with the cast and stage managers in period duds sweeping set elements on and off with impressive discipline.
A fairground carousel is created in a blink with poles and ropes. Surry Hills is made with scaffold units that clamp together to form the Darcy’s Plymouth Street hovel and pull apart to create the streetscape. Later, Luna Park is slowly conjured with a circle of fairylights.
Nick Schlieper’s lighting design is symphonic in its detail and scope. Music (The Sweats) and sound (Nate Edmondson) likewise.
The production peaks relatively early in the Surry Hills section of the first play, one that is rich with incident, humour and tragedy.
The second play (devoted to the events of Poor Man’s Orange) is no less tragic – capturing as it does the demolition of much of Surry Hills and an untimely death – though it’s more starkly staged and somewhat less touching.
That said, the play’s depiction of a community swept away resonates powerfully in this theatre, set as it is within the mercilessly gentrified Millers Point.
The performances are tuned to the scale of this large venue but are notably fine-grained. Hegh and Finsterer age their characters quite brilliantly with Hegh outstanding as the grief-haunted Margaret.
Riley and Treffone offer nuanced and utterly contrasting studies of adolescence. Guy Simon shines as Charlie, the young part-Aboriginal man Roie falls in love with. Heather Mitchell delights as Eny Kilker, whom we watch morph from boisterous middle age to senility during the course of the show.
Second tier roles are similarly well-shaded: Helen Thomson creates an immediate audience favourite in brothel madam Delie Stock. Tara Morice (Miss Sheily) Rahel Romahn (Harry Drummy), Tony Cogin (Pat Diamond) and Bruce Spence (Father Cooley) contribute strongly.
Benedict Hardie is outstanding as the shifty, crippled Tommy Mendell and is very funny as the host of Dolour’s favourite radio quiz show.
Lucia Mastrantone is vivacious whether playing a nun or an Italian prostitute. George Zhao has some lovely moments as Lick Jimmy, purveyor of fruit never quite ripe enough to eat.
This is theatre for which terms such as “big-hearted” and “sweeping” were invented.