This review for contains extra rant at the end I didn’t include in the review.

It has been thirty years since Dorothy Hewitt’s The Man From Mukinupin was first performed by the National Theatre Company at the Playhouse, Perth. According to Stephen Barry’s introduction to the sesquicentennial edition published by Currency Press in 1979, “the announcement of this commission met with vociferous and considerable opposition.” According to Graeme Blundell’s recent article in The Australian, Hewitt felt like an outsider in her time: “Theatre critics call me a poet and the poetry critics usually refer to me as a playwright.” This marginalization of a brave and creative writer is a timeless and universal story, but well and truly extinguished in this Company B and MTC Co-Production. This production of Man From Mukinupin is at the front and centre of theatre in Sydney at the moment: and Hewitt’s play is difficult to ignore. This unique and epic piece of theatre: full of song, dance, languid larrikinism, poetry and vaudevillian conceit boasts an incredible cast including theatre veterans Max Gillies and Kerry Walker.

The Man From Mukinupin is the story of a small town east of the rabbit proof fence, complete with larger than life characters small towns often attract. A prized general store manager’s daughter Polly Perkins (Suzannah Bayes- Morton) who has competing attentions from the sweetly naive grocer’s boy Jack Tuesday (Craig Annis) and an older travelling lingerie salesman Mr Cecil Brunner (David Page who also plays a triumvirate of roles throughout), the general store manager Eek Perkins (Max Gillies) and his heard of hearing wife Eadie Perkins (Kerry Walker), Miss Clemmie Hummer an ex-tightrope walker from a circus (Valentina Levkowicz) and the town dress maker Miss Clarry Hummer (played by Roxanne McDonald until 5th April then Lillian Crombie), and an aging Shakespearean actress (Amanda Muggleton). Supporting and accompanying this cast are two musicians: Daryl Wallis, Wayne Freer (for opening night) lead by Musical Director Alan John.

It is impossible to talk about this production without talking about music and sound design as this is a “musical play”. Twenty-one songs are woven throughout the action of the play, the original composition by Jim Cotter. They have been arranged by Alan John and are skillfully played by two onstage musicians. Sometimes underscoring the action, and sometimes exploding into fully realised songs, the music is a prominent part of his production, indeed a prominent part of the world within this story. Historically, it is a wonderful reminder of how much music was of centre of entertainment in small communities. However, those audience members expecting the performers to be trained musical theatre performers, will be disappointed. Erring on the side of Brechtian performance they are actors singing, not singers who are acting. Some of the songs were let down by the weak vocals of the performers who failed to phrase some lines, and who’s pitch wavered. But anchoring the songs in a hearty and brilliantly confident performance: Craig Annis: who is impressive as duel characters Jack Tuesday and Harry Tuesday.

Also somewhat confusing was the set for this production. It seemed the bulk of Mukinupin was concealed in a coffee splattered linen curtain which served as backdrop for front scenes. Also surprising was how similar the set (designed by Richard Roberts) was to that of Enoch’s previous upstairs show: Yibiyung (design by Jacob Nash)… Is this the further development of Enoch’s staging style: A curtain which cuts out the outback, floorboard, white sketetons of ghost gums? The use of space was somewhat confusing: with a small caravan on stage which wasn’t clear if it was in town or out of time: who it belonged to.

However, regardless of my reservations of the vocal strength of the performers ( I think one cast member is currently battling laryngitis), and the set: “the play is the thing”, and the parallel stories of the characters: Jack/Harry, Eek/Zeek, Polly/Lilley evokes interesting contrasts: the haves, the have nots, the broken, the strong, the hero, the pure, the sinful collide in a narrative which winds its way towards marriage. It is a terrifically dark and shadowy story about the subconscious which has a particular link to the land: its harsh and unforgiving nature: yet its capacity for rain and crops. But it is also a distinct and important play: which has evolved under Enoch to be more than a living museum of past Australian playwriting: a living breathing and at times hilarious portrayal of an ordinary outback town.

Additionally I think it’s interesting to note (and slightly ironic) that Hewitt’s frustration with theatre management in 1973 said “it has become painfully obvious that the theatre managements put no real value on creative talent…. The major subsidized companies whose job should be to take risks and provide a supportive environment for real talent, are most timid, blood-thirsty and destructive of all…” However, thirty years on, does the mounting of a classic Australian text by an iconic playwright of this talent and creativity by MTC and Company B show risk or conservatism? I wonder if the who’s who would be out in full force to support the new and emerging? Would Peter Garratt turn up to opening night? Would Nell Schofield? It feels a little like The Little Red Hen to me… and it’s easy to celebrate the already celebrated… who celebrates the emerging, and the Dorothy Hewitt of today? The ignored outsiders? The Marginalized writers who can’t get a show on upstairs unless its been mounted elsewhere and tried out first?