BORN YESTERDAY - MELBOURNE
BORN YESTERDAY, Melbourne Theatre Company, Southbank Theatre, 14 January-25 February 2017. Photography by Jeff Busby, above Russell Dykstra and Christie Whelan Browne; below: Joel Jackson and Christie Whelan Browne
Born Yesterday has a simple plot line: set in Washington DC just after WWII we have a self made tyrant doing shifty deals with crooked senators to further feather his/their nests; a self confessed “dumb blonde” girlfriend of eight years standing, a whistleblower, a drunken, fallen crooked lawyer and a member of the tycoon’s family picking up the dross. Sound familiar?
Written by Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday premiered on Broadway in 1946 to great acclaim, and the film version went on to win six Academy Award nominations including Best Actress (Judy Holliday) for her portrayal of the socially inept gal morphing into the socially aware Billie Dawn.
For this production director Dean Bryant has assembled an outstanding cast and the play will appeal to a lot of people, especially in this time of change: you can’t help but think of Trump. But simply sketching in a contemporary political reference is not enough to make the play relevant, the writing is old fashioned and I’m not convinced the play holds up. However, the opening night audience was supportive and willing; they wanted it to succeed and it probably will.
All theatre is subjective, we all have opinions, that is what is compelling, and that is why we go. Waiting for the curtain to rise I was ready for a good night in the theatre; well into the first act I was still waiting. The set (Dale Ferguson) – a large plush two-tiered ’50s hotel room with an expansive skyline including the imposing Lincoln Memorial and equally spacious staircase – and an effective lighting design (Matt Scott) sets the scene well. The first act was slow, not so much in the pacing of the piece but it seemed as if some of the actors were trying too hard to get into their skins.
Christie Whelan Browne as Billie Dawn is a standout. Dressed impeccably to suit the period (costumes also Dale Ferguson) she embodies Billie: “I don’t think, why would I? I got two mink coats”. We follow her every whim. Locked in a relationship that harbours violence she believes that’s all she is good for. The self-made man, Harry Brock (Russell Dykstra), saves her from the life of a chorus girl only to make her a kept woman. Whelan Browne’s transformation from a broad happy with her lot into a woman who has a thirst for knowledge and a slow burning understanding that she has more to offer the world and herself is both hysterically funny and heart warming.
Whelan Browne is a star. In the story her transformation comes about through the work and interest of young reporter Paul Verrall (Joel Jackson) hired by Harry Brock to give her some class so that when she’s in the company of the senator (Richard Piper) and his wife (Heidi Arena) Harry won’t be embarrassed. Naturally he doesn’t see that he is the jackass. Jackson, in a tough role, has that “something” as a performer: your eyes drift to him when he is on stage. And he is the love interest for Billie – the good guy.
Dykstra’s Harry takes a while to get into his stride but finds it (the “Gin Rummy scene” is a delight). An uneducated bully – money begets money – he continually demeans his cousin, Eddie Brock (Chris Fortuna), who is there to serve the great man; and anyway where would he go without him? Even when his Billie calls it for what it is he only sees that she is the loser; it is a nuanced performance and his last few scenes are captivating. Playing a drunk can be irritating but in Tyler Coppin’s control as Ed Devery, we appreciate the man’s fall from grace.
Dean Bryant draws solid performances from all the cast. It is a strong ensemble and that’s what kept me interested. In lesser hands, I’m not so sure.
What it does remind, in a Broadway kind of way, is the importance of learning, not staying small, that people, no matter where they begin their life, all have a say in the world around us, supporting social justice, saying “no” to bullying and “no” to domestic violence.
The curtain call was full of joy. Even the Bell Hop (Josh Gates) gets his moment in the sun. The audience left with smiles on their faces.