Tag Archives: Chris Edmund

Before I Get Old (Chris Edmund)

New Theatre, W.A.Academy of Performing Arts

Before I Get Old
Before I Get Old

  Reviewed by Neville Cohn

In a program note, playwright Chris Edmund points out that the genesis of his newest play was an old-boys’ school reunion he’d attended in London two years ago.

It is a stunning achievement, a disturbingly articulate resurrection of the pain and anguish that so many would have experienced during years at high school.

A cast of sixteen do wonders in a production that deserves the highest praise for the way in which it has overcome what must have been a most challenging logistical exercise, with the cast breathing life into 34 roles. Certainly, rapid costume changes and the need to abandon one persona and adopt another in seconds were object lessons in how to do this sort of thing well.

This unsettling theatre experience is not for the squeamish although to place things in perspective, the events, set in a Hertfordshire school, even at their worst, can hardly be compared with, say, Dickens’ appalling Dotheboys Hall.

But it will certainly be disconcerting theatre for those whose expectations of a play about English school life derive from the absurd blandness of, say, Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books or the school-centred stories carried by weekly editions of Girl’s Crystal and Champion papers in the 1950s. Before I Get Old is light years away from the superficial folderol that is Blyton’s twee school world.

On the contrary, Edmund’s play is the essence of gritty realism.

Edmund took what I’d imagine was a calculated risk (that pays off impressively) in presenting what is, in effect, a highly episodic offering, a fast-paced string of vignettes with snappy dialogue that touches on more than the school experience (which in any case does not function in a vacuum).

I cannot imagine anyone who might have attended a state-run high school (or any school for that matter), whether in Australia or abroad, failing to identify with at least some aspects of a play that reveals the uglier side of the educational experience. Certainly, it is often very close to the bone.

Although the action centres around a school in the early 1950s some 35 miles north of London, the play’s themes are universal and timeless and that is what makes it such a powerful offering.

With singular skill in articulating the upheavals of adolescence and the selfconscious awkwardness that comes in its train, Edmund, sparing nothing, shows us the fraught and fragile nature of the teenage psyche.

Through what might be described as a series of flashbacks, Edmund reveals all this and more with a compassion and insight that make for theatre of high order.

In less than completely sure hands, a play of this nature can so easily descend into embarrassing bathos. Not here. Consider, for instance, a vignette set in a rear row of the local cinema. With its sweaty, clumsy gropings and a literally vomitous moment (unwise drinking under age?), it encapsulates part of the teenage rite of passage with an unerring touch.

Edmund’s play casts a wide net. Who are more sensitive to the behaviour of family, parents in particular, than teenagers? And here, too, Edmund’s spot-on explorations of sometimes heartrending familial dilemmas – parental and sibling illness, alcoholism, problem gambling – make an indelible mark. So, too, do scenes that focus on the at-times unintentional cruelty of schoolmates – and on the vulnerability and need for acceptance by peers that is so often masked by desperate bravado.

In an ensemble piece of this nature, where teamwork is of the essence, it is perhaps invidious to single out individuals – there were no weak links in this cast – but it would be ungracious not to particularly mention Richard Flanagan (right) as the hapless Conger. Balaclava-clad, and with a striking resemblance to, of all people, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, Flanagan gave a striking performance as a gawky student not always keeping pace with his peers.

As both playright and director, Edmund has scored a triumph. Nothing so justifies the existence of WAAPA’s theatre course than a production of this quality. It deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2006

The Butcher’s Dance (Chris Edmund)

Academy Theatre, Mount Lawley


reviewed by Neville Cohn

For a number of years, civil liberties were suspended in the Argentine which at the time was under the control of a brutal military junta. Unspeakable crimes were committed, often with impunity, and the exact fate of many thousands of Argentinians will never be known.

Chris Edmund, in his latest play – The Butcher’s Dance – has given us a disturbing insight into that terrible era. But there is much else to engage the eye and ear in what is a many-layered offering.

Whether unintended or consciously sought, much of what leads up to a hideous confrontation between secret police and a Buenos Aires family has about it a dream-like quality where some of the dialogue sounds muffled and often rather difficult to make out, an effect exacerbated by an overlay of tango music at low decibel levels. The effect is to lull the observer, again perhaps unintended – but when appalling violence breaks out in Buenos Aires suburbia, the impact, by contrast, is all the greater. It is electrifying.

Edmund includes known figures in his tale. In a New York brothel, presided over by Polly Adler (a splendidly vulgar characterisation by Virginia Gay who gives us as flinty a Madam as one is ever likely to encounter on stage), we meet the acerbic Dorothy Parker well on her way to status as a bitchy alcoholic – and Robert Benchley (Martin Williams), that other habitue of the Algonquin Round Table. As well, we meet tango-meister Astor Piazzolla (Morgan David Jones). It’s the moment of Wall Street’s 1929 collapse with all the economic chaos and human misery that follow in its wake.

For much of the evening, one is conscious of a barely contained undercurrent of menace and violence. This theme of aggressive anger is early established as we watch a butcher hacking at a joint of meat, then a knife fight that breaks out between workers in late-19th century Buenos Aires. The events of 9/11 come frequently to the fore as well.

But the chief focus is on the horror unleashed on the Argentine by General Videla and his henchmen between 1976 and 1983.

We see a Buenos Aires family including a heavily pregnant woman at home as secret police arrive. They commit horrific assaults, primarily sexual, on both women and men. Edmund does not hold back here; unflinchingly, unsparingly, he reveals the shocking violence of the time and its ghastly aftermath.

Reinforcing the impact of these scenes is the knowledge that the events portrayed are not some fanciful essay in Grand Guignol but incidents of a sort that were all too frequent and all too real.

Perhaps inevitably, as we watch the acting out of brutal tyranny, Argentine-style, we think of more recent outrages ­ torture and humiliation of prisoners in Abu Graib, for instance. Are the gross abuses of power in Iraq any less despicable and unacceptable as those which took place in the Argentine?

Are events in Iraq not even worse because a blind eye is turned to it by those cynical professors of humbug who pretend – and may even believe – that they are the white knights of democracy, ostensibly freeing the oppressed to enjoy the delights of USA-style enlightenment?

The Butcher’s Dance is not for the squeamish nor for those who prefer plays to have a chronological working out with a clear beginning and a logical end. Edmund’s offering is the antithesis of this formality; Butcher’s Dance is fragmentary and episodic, the viewer taken on a winding path along which we encounter, inter alia, a number of characters who come onstage alone and take the audience into their confidence.

One, in particular, lingers in the mind. She looks as if she might be an off-duty flight attendant, an American; her smugness, her ignorance and complacency are frightening, her uncritical and absolute belief in the rightness of the ‘American way’ appalling.

The confronting nature of much of The Butcher’s Dance is not for those whose idea of a good night at the theatre is
a couple of hours of lightweight, escapist mummery.

Society needs works such as Edmund’s, theatre that compels us to question what those in power are doing in our names.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn