Cloudstreet is a great novel with working-class Australians as its central characters. It is the poignant story of two families, the Lambs and the Pickles – both of which have experienced hardship – who come to reside in a big, rambling, run-down old house.
Winton has a poetic way with words that paints characters vividly, truthfully, uniquely; he writes about significant national issues that must be addressed if we are to grow and develop as a nation, especially with regard to the treatment of indigenous Australians.
Director Gale Edwards has worked with composer George Palmer on this superb operatic theatrical adaptation of the book which examines life in the past yet will delight contemporary audiences.
The opening images, setting and music are captivating. When Fish Lamb becomes entangled in a net, the narrative, music and imagery combine to tell a tale as riveting as you are ever likely to see on a stage.
Victoria Lamb’s sumptuous set, Nigel Levings’ striking lighting and Craig Williams’ impressive video imagery combine to create a backdrop of visual excitement which seamlessly flows and provides moments of startling beauty throughout the production.
Cloudstreet is a genuine ensemble production, and the acting and singing of the entire cast is world-class. Edwards has made the most of each performer’s talent to bring Winton’s complex characters to life.
Nicholas Jones’ portrayal of Fish Lamb, the boy who was everyone’s favourite until a fishing accident affected his mental functioning, is an astonishing achievement. He is totally believable and, when he sings freely and powerfully high in the sky in a row boat, we soar with him, experiencing Winton’s vision of the surreal, supernatural world where Fish resides.
Nicholas Cannon, as his brother Quick, creates the complexity of a young man who initially lives in his brother’s shadow only to become his carer and close friend; there is a warmth and sincerity to his performance. Desiree Frahn, who has given some wonderful performances with State Opera, really hits her straps as Rose Pickles, a scrawny young anorexic girl who, despite her hardships, develops into a beautiful young woman.
Pelham Andrews presents Lester Lamb as a decent, caring man, somewhat perplexed by his wife’s behaviour (she moves out of the home to live in a tent on the lawn); his voice is that of a caring father and loving husband, and he represents the deep concerns of a troubled world. Antoinette Halloran takes on the role of the classic battling Aussie woman, Oriel Lamb, who is devastated by what happens to her son Fish, and who desperately tries to come to terms with her god who has allowed it to happen.
Joanna McWaters is a tour-de-force as Dolly Pickles, the promiscuous wife who spends more time at the pub than with her family, while Barry Ryan is superb as Sam Pickles, the down-to-earth Aussie for whom the shifty shadow seems to always bring bad luck. The use of the Australian vernacular is refreshing to hear on an opera stage.
Composer Palmer has written magnificent solos for his singers and they are all delivered with emotion and power.
Cloudstreet offers a unique opportunity for Don Bemrose, a proud Gunggari man, to present on stage, in his rich baritone voice, the spirit of Aboriginal people. His character is the link between Fish and his spirit world, the connection between Quick and the land, and a reminder of the tragedies and human rights violations that have taken place in this country.
Cloudstreet the house is mysterious and it makes the Lambs and Pickles feel uncomfortable because of its tragic history; the first glimpses of what happened in that house are startling and unnerving – and rightly so.
The genius of Winton’s story has inspired Palmer’s musical talents. Together, the composer, Edwards, State Opera artistic director and conductor Timothy Sexton, and the brilliant artistic cast and crew have created not only one of the best opera experiences you could have, but also one of the best theatre experiences.
As the audience stood on its feet, I wanted to shout out not “Bravo” but “F***en bewdy” – high in the sky, across the red earth and beyond, to wherever our spirits mingle. There should not be an empty seat at Her Majesty’s for this season of Cloudstreet.
State Opera SA is presenting Cloudstreet at Her Majesty’s Theatre until May 21.
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