Theatre Review: This Much is True shines a light on Sydney’s underbelly (Performance at The Old Fitz until 12 August)

In a theatre hidden in the back of a pub in the depths of Wolloomooloo gather a motley cast of characters who look to have stepped straight onto the stage from the street outside. Throw in a hefty dose of humour, a smattering of nostalgia and a generous amount of alcohol and you have This Much is True, the latest offering from renowned Australian playwright, Louis Nowra. It is funny, genuine and very Sydney.

The work was commissioned by Red Line Productions, who call the Old Fitz home, and there’s more than a little art imitating life here. This is Nowra’s first play in more than a decade, but it is full of the crazy, colourful characters and observational humour he’s become famous for.

Those familiar with his work will recognise the central character of Lewis, who first appeared in Summer of the Aliens in 1992 and later the same year in Cosi. The characters Lewis, now a writer, encounters in The Rising Sun hotel are inspired by real Woolloomooloo locals that Nowra encountered at the Old Fitzroy Hotel. Through Lewis’ eyes we see the inner heart of Sydney in all its rough and ready glory. There’s drug use, there’s alcoholism, there’s mental illness, there’s female wrestling.

Not so much a narrative as a series of recollections, the play ambles along with not much sense of a destination. That said, the characters are very engaging, and a sense of local nostalgia keeps the text from feeling aimless. And the action does follow a clear timeframe: Lewis announces he is in the area for a year and we track along with the characters as they drink through the seasons together.

Playing this iteration of Lewis is Septimus Caton, who has a comfortable onstage presence. He hovers periodically outside the action, observing the other players with thoughtful eyes, slipping gently back into the light when it’s time to progress to the next scene. Caton’s Lewis is a greasy-haired everyman who comes across as both extremely approachable and a bit of a loner.

As Cass, the man who has had more jobs than he’s had hot dinners, Danny Adcock is delightful. He delivers his lines with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. The character feels so real you have to remind yourself that you’re watching a play, not sitting in an actual bar.

Ashley Lyons’ Wesley is hysterical. Wonderfully physical, while retaining its roots in realism, Lyons’ performance gives the character depth where a lesser actor would just play the superficial comedy.

As Venus, the ageing drag diva, Justin Stewart Cotta delivers a deeply genuine performance. He is immensely watchable and well-rounded, and so natural as a drag queen you’d assume it was his regular profession.

The resident ‘crazy’ Clarrie is played superbly by Martin Jacobs. A drug chemist bent on creating perfect purity, Jacobs gives us a Clarrie who has sampled one too many of his own mixes. He would be at home on the streets outside.

Malcolm, a debt collector for the casino, is performed with subtlety by Alan Dukes. He is unassumingly unthreatening in the bar, but when the red rage rises he has an energy that is just a little frightening. As Rhys, Robin Goldsworthy is a terrific study of a financial consultant. Having myself spent a long time in the financial services industry I can honestly say he has picked up on the arrogant charm necessary to convince people to hand over their hard-earned cash.

The only let down in the cast is Joanna Downing as Gretel, the bartender. Her vocal delivery feels a little forced and unlike the other actors, who seem to inhabit their characters, Downing doesn’t seem quite so settled. But her mime skills are exceptional!

In fact, all the actors are required to draw on their silent performance abilities because one thing you’ll notice almost immediately is that there are no props in this production. The actors mime pouring and swilling drinks, their hands curved claw-like around the air. While it may seem strange that a theatre in a hotel cannot rustle up some spare schooners and wine glasses, it becomes quickly apparent that Toby Schmitz has made a very sound directorial choice here. Practically every scene takes place in the pub – to recreate the venue accurately would take some serious prop work and just a bit too much guzzling of fake alcohol for the actors to make it through the full 100 minutes without several trips to the bathroom.

That said, Anna Gardiner’s set is wonderful. It perfectly invokes the feeling of a 150 year-old drinking establishment without going over the top with too much set dressing. The effect is achieved entirely through painted flats with inset doors, covered in peeling band posters. The set design is also flexible enough to allow the players to reset the location of the bar throughout the show; this stops the action from becoming stale and repetitive – like so many bar tales.

Jed Silver has delivered a witty soundtrack, extracting its own laughs from the audience. It doesn’t so much accompany the action as signal the transitions between stories but still manages to set the mood. Ultimately, the music adds a sense of familiarity, which again pulls you back to the feeling of being in a bar where everyone knows your name.

Schmitz has regularly proved that he is not just a talent on stage but also off it, and his work on this production is no exception. He displays a clear love for the venue and its regulars (both the drinking and play-attending variety). Throughout the play he encourages his actors to break a few theatrical rules, extending the action like a big hug. How he found time to do this and play the central role in Belvoir’s The Rover (now showing) I do not know!

The title of this work is a nod to the semi-autobiographical nature of Nowra’s character Lewis. True or imagined, the tales in This Much Is True feel real enough and the characters are extraordinarily believable. Whether it has a future outside Sydney’s stages remains to be seen, but for locals, it is a wonderful yarn.

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The World Premiere of This Much is True is playing at The Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo until 12th August. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 14th July.

Photo credit John Marmaras