‘Sailing South’ was boisterous.
Continuing a 13-year tradition of presenting Australian plays on Australia Day, Redland Museum and MATES Theatre Genesis Inc. have joined forces again to present Judith Prior’s ‘Sailing South’ – a rollicking romp on the high seas at the Redland Museum in Cleveland.
Hailing from Bundaberg, Prior began writing theatre restaurant scripts in 1989 and has never looked back. Her plays have been performed all over the globe and are the perfect material for numerous local theatre groups. ‘Sailing South’ is no exception and the story tells a tall tale of a tall ship on its way to Australia in the 1850s. The fun script is peppered with one-liners, ‘bad’ jokes, innuendo, crazy characters, witty scenes and audience participation, which makes for a very enjoyable night of theatre.
Arriving for the evening performance, guests are greeted at Redland Museum entrance by the very pleasant museum staff and are encouraged to explore the exhibits before heading out back to enjoy a 2-course dinner. Tables are nautically themed and set out on the lawn of the museum grounds. The environment is lovely; guests enjoy their meal as the sun sets. Although the food is a simple fare of corned beef, mash and veg followed by apple crumble, it’s well-cooked and delicious. There is a non-meat option available and also a bar for refreshments. For those enjoying an earlier matinee performance, dinner is replaced by afternoon tea.
After dinner, the festivities commence with the first act of the play performed in this outdoor space. It’s here that audiences meet Judge Eustace McDonald (played by Stuart Fisher) who, after a long day of sentencing various petty criminals and ladies of negotiable virtue to the penal colonies in Australia, is horrified to discover that he has been appointed captain of the transport ship with said prisoners assigned as his crew.
The story continues indoors in the museum, with the theatre space set up as the good ship, Venus, which set sails and the untrained crew blunders across the ocean – until word is received that gold has been discovered in Australia and prisoners will be pardoned and granted land to mine and farm, but only if they’re married. This sets off a whirlwind of courtships and flirtations until they finally reach Australia, and everyone has received their heart’s desire… or their just desserts.
Director, Kath Kunde, ably assisted by Adelle O’Connell, has gathered an ensemble cast of 11 with varying degrees of experience. Cohesively, they created a wonderful theatrical romp in the vein of the ‘Carry On’ films of the 1960s. Every performer relished their role and worked beautifully together, obviously thoroughly enjoying themselves. Intuitive direction really made the most of the comedy – the insertion of local references in the script were spot on and the choice to encourage audience participation really paid off with some hilarious improvised moments. Use of the small stage with a large cast was inventive and meant the scenes never looked boring.
Costumes by Donna Preston were excellent and appropriate. The prisoner costumes were particularly great, with the ladies and men dressed in the same cream calico material; pinafores for the women, and trousers and vests for the men. Together, their striped shirts matched cohesively. This uniformity onstage represented the characters well and, furthermore, made a nice visual impact under Mike Daniell’s lighting design.
Set design by Lea-Anne Smith was simple, bright and effective, incorporating two different parts of the deck of the Venus with interesting detail. Keira O’Connell and Sam Galatola sourced the many props, with specific items such as the Big Book, mirror, oversized Captain’s hat, boat wheel and the baked beans box (the source of a few obvious jokes) wonderfully manufactured for the show by Fisher’s Fandangles and Fabrications.
Performances across the board were solid and entertaining from this ensemble cast. Fisher was a standout as Eustice (Judge, then Captain of the Venus). His years of experience performing in stand-up comedy and working as an M.C. served him well in this production. Fisher’s repartee with the audience, facial expressions, and improvisational moments were a treat, and, at times created comedy gold. This also rang true for Barbara Wyatt’s portrayal of Lavinia, Eustice’s mother. Wyatt created some wonderfully comedic moments and her timing was impeccable. Every scene played with Fisher was priceless and these two seasoned performers had great chemistry.
In the dual role of Court Clerk and Ship’s Bosun, Amanda Lay brought sparkling energy to the proceedings, particularly in performing the male Bosun with gusto and verve. This spurred great comedic flow with her fellow cast members. Daniel Baker, humorously played both the Lawyer as well as ship’s French Purser and Exercise Guru, Francois. He was a delight with his “Allo Allo” French accent, bad puns and outrageous exercise tips.
Roy Nunn as Toby the pickpocket, and Dylan Proctor as Ben the gullible cabin boy, jested well together as seasoned opportunist and naïve boy, respectively. Both had opportunities in scenes to show off their comedy talents. Highlights included a scene with Toby and Mabel the cook (played by Janet Angel), and another between Ben and the lovely Polly (played by Darsha Hockings).
As the ‘ladies’ on the ship, Margaret Laurence as lady of the night Charlot; Suzanne Kelly as wanna-be posh lady Denise; Angel as Mabel the cook who can’t cook; Lea-Anne Smith as Sally; and Hockings as the naïve Polly, each brought to life a distinctive character and their interactions with each other sparkled. Here again were great scenes between characters that really brought the script to life. Laurence and Kelly had some great dialogue together, and in particular Smith’s timing with the ever-crying Sally was hilarious. A cross-purpose scene with the young Ben having explained to him the process of “How to Grease a Capstan” (involving oil, nuts, and ball bearings), and Sally desperately seeking advice on how to get the attentions of Captain Eustice, was memorable and had the audience in fits of laughter.
All in all, MATES Theatre Genesis has started the year with a bountiful adventure that scores well in comedy and offers a good laugh. The journey of the Venus is a fun ride, and audiences should set sail to southeast Cleveland for a relaxing night out at the theatre.
Sailing South performs until Sunday, 7 February at the Redland Museum in Cleveland. For more information and tickets, visit Mates Theatre Genesis website.
Photography – Paul Ledington