Monday, February 7, 2011

PIAF: Waltzing the Wilarra

Written and composed by David Milroy
Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company
For PIAF 2011
Directed by Wesley Enoch
Musical Director Wayne Freer
Featuring Ernie Dingo, Jessica Clarke, Kelton Pell, Irma Woods, Ursula Yovich, Trevor Jamieson, Tim Solly and Alexandra Jones. David Milroy (guitar), Wayne Freer (bass), Lucky Oceans (pedal steel and accordion), Ric Eastman (drums) and Bob Patient (keyboards)
Subiaco Arts Centre
3 Feb – 6 Mar, 2011

The world premiere season of David Milroy’s Waltzing the Wilarra is an auspicious start to the 2011 Perth International Arts Festival’s theatre program.
Set in post-WWII Perth, the musical drama tells of a mixed-race dance club operating under the watchful eye of its MC and manager, Mr Mac (Kelton Pell).
Mr Mac has reason to be careful; Aborigines live under a regime of curfew, identity paper checks, no-go zones and nights in the lock-up. The races mix rarely, apart from in master/servant relationships.
In the club, though, there are black/white relationships of other kinds, despite the opprobrium of society and the law, such as the marriage between the club’s Aboriginal star, Elsa (Ursula Yovich), and the deeply damaged returned digger Jack (Tim Solly).
Trevor Jamieson and Ursula Yovich are
stunning in
Waltzing the Wilarra (pic: Jon Green) 
Elsa’s Aboriginal stage partner, Charlie (Trevor Jamieson), has grown up like a brother to Jack but can’t deny or hide his affection for her. He, in turn, is pursued by Fay (Alexandra Jones) a white girl from the western suburbs who has been nannied since birth by Elsa’s mother, Mrs Cray (Irma Woods).
It’s a combustible mix, and someone’s bound to get burned. The first act leads inexorably to the tragic outcome of these tangled lives.
After interval we return to the club 40 years later and, for some minutes, we watch a young, pregnant woman (Jessica Clarke) re-arranging its furniture. It’s an oddly mesmerising ritual (the subject of much conjecture and debate after the show), but it serves Milroy and director Wesley Enoch’s audacious purpose of breaking the first act’s spell and preparing the audience for what is to come.
As the now much older surviving characters file in to a “reconciliation event” the day before the old hall is demolished, we find ourselves in a very different play. Instead of song and dance we have tightly scripted dialogue and biting social comment – nothing is sacred here, including “welcome to country” ceremonies and other shibboleths of the age of reconciliation. We have deeply-felt anger, grief and emotion as the characters work through the painful tatters of their lives towards truth and real, human, reconciliation.
This is a terrific, stylish production, and Yirra Yaakin has marshalled a powerful, charismatic cast for Enoch to work with. All the performers are outstanding, with Jamieson and Yovich remarkable both as the young, talented Charlie and Elsa of the 1940s and the haunted old couple half a century later. Most of the cast have star musical turns, with Clarke and Jones’s hilarious bathing beauty contest vamping and Solly’s striking Nick Cave-like ballad, “Criminal Love”, especially notable.
It’s always wonderful to see our National Living Treasure Ernie Dingo back home on a local stage, and he is his customary sagacious and hilarious self as the play’s chorus, Old Toss.
The music throughout is instantly memorable, especially in the hands of a white-hot five-piece band including Milroy and musical director Wayne Freer, along with musical luminaries Lucky Oceans (that man again!), Ric Eastman and Bob Patient.
The show looks sweet, the dancing’s elite, and the Subiaco Arts Centre space gives it just the intimacy it needs.
The raucous standing ovation and the contented look on her face after the show suggests that PIAF artistic director Shelagh Magazda’s last Festival has its first hit a week before it officially kicks off.  
An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian 7.2.11 here 

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