The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is Brink Productions’ faithful adaptation of Patrick White’s short story Down at the Dump.
It is an intriguing insight into the gossipy small-mindedness of a close-knit, closed-minded community as it prepares for the funeral of the free-spirited Daise.
Director Chris Drummond and designer Michael Hankin have converted the Space Theatre into a dusty, dry Australian landscape with the aid of rows of dried grass, wooden chairs in concentric circles and a very large cloth above.
White brilliantly breathes life into his characters in a way that makes them identifiably Australian without being overly ockerish, and the actors in this production create archetypes and real people rather than stereotypes. Each actor plays multiple roles and they shift effortlessly from one to the next. They are dressed in dirty cream shirts, singlets and blouses over which they sport dark brown overalls, aprons, dresses and school uniforms; occasionally a hat or prop embellishes the character portrayal.
The Aspirations of Daise Morrow captures and evokes an Australian era pre-1960 but the essential isolation, sadness, hypocrisy and meanness of the characters transcends time.
The cast members look and sound as if they have been plucked from White’s brain and placed upon the stage.
Paul Blackwell is the ideal sad clown as Wal Whalley, a man whose idea of a good time is to take the missus down the dump with a few cold beers; then, with the aid of only a lady’s hat, he becomes the tearful, motherly Mrs Hogben, dead Daise’s sister, who remarks incredibly: “Girls don’t know they’re happy until it’s too late.”
Kris McQuade is the decrepit Mrs Whalley, the wife who wonders and worries if her hubby had ever had it off with Daise Morrow; then she is the suburban councillor Hogben.
As White says of the Whalleys: “Their faces were lit by the certainty of life.” James Smith, in overalls and tousled hair, is terrific as young Lummy Whalley, who is a bit simple (after his meningitis) and then as Ossie Coogan, an older man, down on his confidence and with mental health issues, who is comforted by Daise.
Lucy Lehmann delightfully embodies the spirit of a teenage girl in her portrayal of Meg Hogben; she also portrays the spirited adult Daise.
Smith and Lehmann have some wonderful moments as the youngsters repulsed by each other but strangely connected and attracted when they explore the dump together. Then they instantaneously transform into the older couple; we witness the attraction and sexual exploration of teenagers, followed by an adult relationship that results in rumours, innuendo and ruined reputations.
The cast is excellent and Drummond’s staging is masterful, having the actors running and processing between rows and speaking from all parts of the room. Nigel Levings ingeniously lights the area so you feel you are at a dump in the midday sun, but then he isolates characters so we sense their isolation or witness their intimacies deep in the night.
The Zephyr Quartet plays throughout the evening and it is incredible how a string quartet can assist the setting for a dump, a funeral, a home or a truck; their involvement is instrumental, particularly in the most intimate moments.
White vividly describes characters trapped in suburban life and he exposes their strengths and weaknesses; his character descriptions are brilliant but his insight into their individual thoughts and attitudes is confrontingly accurate. Brinks’ actors savour White’s words and they do him justice; just occasionally a word or phrase went missing, and the excellence of this production deserves and demands perfection.
If you love Patrick White (or even if you have not read him), if you enjoy theatre-in-the-round and being up close to actors, if you appreciate good acting and clever staging, The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is a show you really should see.
Brink Productions is presenting The Aspirations of Daise Morrow at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre until October 24.
Read InDaily’s interview with Chris Drummond about the show here.