A cast of 17 bring Nick Enright's musical to the New Theatre stage
Nick Enright and Terence Clarke’s Summer Rain is a landmark Australian musical. Embracing local language and rural hospitality, it captures a bittersweet – but ultimately uplifting – slice of post-war Australian life.
It’s Boxing Day 1946, and the sleepy Turnaround Creek (a fictional hamlet somewhere in Western NSW) has its tranquillity shattered when a travelling song-and-dance family blow in. The Slocums are broke – they don’t even have their big top anymore – and their troupe has just walked out, fed up with patriarch Harold (Andrew Sharp), who has a habit of gambling away their wages.
The Slocum’s act once visited ‘Turna’(as it’s affectionately called) about 16 years ago, and made a good chunk of money from the bored townsfolk, so they plan to put on a show and get enough money to get going again.
But it’s not quite that simple.
It turns out the Slocums disrupted the town’s easy peace the last time they visited, and there’s bad blood between the ‘showies’ and some of Turna’s residents. But as it starts to rain, breaking a seven-year drought (and cutting off the only bridge out of town), lovers find their match and long-held grudges are finally faced.
It’s a wonderful musical theatre story, full of songs that capture something ineffable and essential about country Australia. But it’s hard to decide if these are reasons are enough to see New Theatre’s roughshod and strangely lifeless production, directed by Trent Kidd.
While the second act is in much better shape than the first – its funny moments actually land, though the show’s more serious moments still get short shrift – the damage done in Act One can’t really be undone (especially not for the people I saw leaving at interval).
Kidd seems to be fighting a battle against the show’s embrace of the real and recognisable; his actors treat bush slang like it’s an exotic language, and though the lines are written with a natural ease, they feel tortured in the ensemble members’ mouths. There’s no room for cultural cringe in Summer Rain, but it’s everywhere in this production. Old and new love connections never quite land (especially because the important city-slicker-showbiz/country divide between the Slocums and the Turna residents is never strongly established) and some of the more clever songs feel muted by Kidd’s Broadway-style choreography, a bad fit for a show set in a town whose residents talk about dancing The Pride of Erin at weddings.
There are some highlights: Anna Freeland plays the wistful Peg Hartigan, a Turna resident whose life is turned upside down by the new visitors, with surprising depth; Jacqui Ray Moloney and Michele Lansdown sing up a second-act storm as put-upon older women who have had enough of their men; and Nat Jobe’s Clarry Nugent, who falls head over heels for pretty showie Joy Slocum (Catty Hamilton), is winningly sweet.
Enright’s words and Clarke’s appealingly bright tumble of music make Summer Rain a success. The work has so much life in it still that it seems a shame that we never really get to experience it on Sydney stages. In that sense, maybe every production of this under-staged show is a gift; but this one doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.