Louis Nowra belatedly completes the autobiographical ‘Lewis’ trilogy in a lively tribute to the real-life misfits of Woolloomooloo, directed by Toby Schmitz
Louis Nowra’s new play is the long-awaited third ‘Lewis’ play after his coming-of-age story Summer of the Aliens and the popular Australian comedy set in a mental health institution, Cosi. Both those plays had their premieres back in 1992 on main stages (for Melbourne Theatre Company and Belvoir respectively) but This Much Is True – a title that Nowra says could apply to either of the two earlier plays – was commissioned by Red Line’s Andrew Henry for the intimate scuzziness of the Old Fitzroy Theatre. Audiences have the chance therefore to watch a true story retold in the bowels of the pub where the actual events reportedly took place.
Nowra is one of the most famous denizens of Kings Cross/Woolloomooloo: you would not have had to walk these streets for long over the past 20 years to spot him in a bar or café, and he has written three books about life in this storied area. In this production, directed by former Old Fitzroy regular (in both theatrical and propping-up-the-bar senses) Toby Schmitz, the Nowra figure, Lewis, is played by lanky Septimus Caton, who walks into the fictionalised Rising Sun pub for the first time and is immediately befriended by Cass (Danny Adcock), an old man who trades in stolen clothes. A running gag involves Cass’s many previous occupations, including pornographer, military man, manager of female wrestlers and retrainer of swearing parrots.
The narrator is drawn into a circle of companions including a former drag superstar Venus (Justin Stewart Cotta), now an ageing transsexual hooker; debt collector Malcolm (Alan Dukes), who frequently shows up at the pub sporting fresh battle scars; Wesley (Ashley Lyons), a bipolar former professional on a downward spiral; and ‘Chemical’ Clarrie (Martin Jacobs), a drug-addled chemist whose basement experiments bring him, like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, to the attention of rival drug gangs. Then there’s young bartender Gretel (Joanna Downing), who loves her regulars but dreams of saving enough to travel abroad.
Like Cosi, the play is a cheerful, non-judgemental tribute to damaged people. Unlike Cosi, there is no overarching plotline, just a couple of minor ones sparked by the death of the old codger who has sat outside the pub for nine years and the arrival of a new friend, a divorced investor called Rhys (Robin Goldsworthy). This is an episodic tale involving reminiscences, barroom philosophy, a theatre visit and a couple of drug binges (don’t expect this Nowra play to end up on any high school syllabuses). The play’s booze-addled entropy is pitched somewhere between Withnail and I and The Iceman Cometh – the figure of Wesley carrying the most tragedy here, with his boast that he’s “in a race between drinking myself to death” and “the money I have left” to accomplish it.
The set here is simply a couple of doors, some chairs and a high table representing the bar: Schmitz has the actors moving furniture around in between scenes to offer different views on the same crowded room. Matt Cox’s lighting aids the illusion. Performances are all finely modulated: Adcock’s charm as the group’s social connector is the anchor, but Cotta’s entrances dressed in famous-diva attire naturally steal scenes, as do flights of chemical fancy by the white-haired Jacobs – most memorably when Clarrie arrives at the pub to order a double whisky still dressed in a hospital gown.
Some may decry the lack of a universalising theme in This Much Is True. Lewis confesses to the audience very early on that he doesn’t have to make stuff up: whenever people learn he’s a writer they bring their stories to him and all he has to do is listen. But the fact Nowra’s avatar doesn’t get a story arc of his own and mostly plays the role of an observer arguably limits the show’s impact. What’s the play about? It’s about two hours long.
Nevertheless, these are stories that deserve to be told, Nowra has fashioned them into engaging shape, and it’s no little privilege to hear them in the place where they transpired. On heading upstairs to the bar at curtain you’ll feel the strong urge to strike up a convo with a barfly and be a part of the continuing story.