CLOUDSTREET – Malthouse Theatre Co at the Merlyn Theatre, 6 MAY–16 June 2019. Photography by Pia Johnson: above - Bert LaBonte and Natasha Herbert; below - Guy Simon and Brenna Harding; below again - Alison Whyte and Greg Stone
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton was adapted for the stage by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo. In the program notes Winton says, “I don’t pretend to understand the phenomenon at all, but Cloudstreet seems to have a life of its own.”
Anyone who read the book in 1991 may also have been surprised when it became a hit stage show in 1999. Why would theatre goers be interested in a book about two families whose lives entwine through mishap?
The short answer is, perhaps, that we are voyeurs, and to watch other people’s lives play out over 20 years is appealing. But it only works if there is magic, poetry and that little bit extra that pulls your heart strings.
Cloudstreet is the address for two families that come together by chance. For one family, there is a father, Mr Pickles, who is a gambling addict with a big heart (played beautifully by Bert LaBonte). And there’s Mrs Pickles (a superb Natasha Herbert), whose pastime is the pub rather than her children. By (mis)fortune they inherit the large dilapidated house with its dark history. The other occupants are the god-fearing Lamb family, with a stern matriarch (Alison Whyte) and a dreamer for a husband (Greg Stone) who believes one of their sons had been saved by a miracle. They crowed too soon however, and had to hurriedly depart their home in Margaret River to rent rooms in Cloudstreet.
I saw the two-part show over two nights. It can also be seen in one hit with a meal break. After the first half of Part One I went to the interval unmoved. It was histrionic at times and I wasn’t connecting with the story. The second half soared. I could have stayed for hours. The magic, and the poetry kicked in and I was mesmerised by the characters and their lives. Part Two, the following evening continued, powerful, funny and heart rending.
Audiences will react differently to Cloudstreet, it may be in the history of the house that permeates the lives of the people who live there. It maybe that they identify with one or other of the families or the offspring. How home and place dictate who we are. How we hide, how we play, how we inherit the good and the ugly of where we have come from.
Cloudstreet is a tale and the actors the story tellers. Theatre at its most rich, with all the actors contributing to two unforgettable nights in the theatre. As is said many times, in the language of the Noongar, “Kalyakoorl" – Forever, Everything, Everywhere, Infinity.
The Noongar language peppers the show. The spirits of those who came before in the house at Cloudstreet. A home for Aboriginal girls who, as the story goes, died miserable deaths ,their souls trapped in the building. “Ngarla koort mirliny Ngarla boodja” (our heart wants our country/we want to go home). That is one of the many delights of this production: the imagery through narration of the release of the spirits of these girls going home to country. It mirrors the experiences of both families over their 20 years, but it is Fish Lamb (Benjamin Oakes) who sees them.
There are wonderful moments throughout by all of the performers, insights into their characters that you cling to.
In each family, there is a child for whom the journey is torrid and spiritual. Guy Simon’s performance as the tormented son, Quick Lamb, is breathtaking – I travelled with him, he was brilliant. Brenna Harding is Rose Pickle, whose trajectory from anorexic, self-loathing family-hating child to a woman and mother is magnificent. They all are magnificent, it is wonderfully cast by director Matthew Lutton, and he has allowed them to grow with the text. We also have Lutton’s penchant for water used to great dramatic effect.
The music (sound design, J David Franzke and composition, Elizabeth Drake) is of its time over twenty years, 1948 to 1963. It’s toe tapping and joyous. And as the music comes in at the end of the show it almost says. “it’s just a story”. The lighting (Paul Jackson) at times makes you jump, and it also conjures, accompanied by the sound, the portrayal of dread and fear and the spirits of the past. The set (Zoe Atkinson) is delicious: a house, a river, the outback, and the city, it is all one. Brilliant.
My only disappointment was that there were empty seats. This show is a must-see. This story has stood the test of time, and it is a timeless story.