Cloudstreet (Malthouse) – theatre review

A compelling story of struggle is enhanced by highly creative staging, sound effects and lighting. Set over 20 years (from the 1940s to the ‘60s), Cloudstreet isn’t just another play – it’s a look inside the consciousness of two Australian families. Tim Winton’s novel won the Miles Franklin Award in 1991. Nick Enright and Justin Monjo adapted it for the stage in 1998, even though Winton was initially skeptical. This new production is directed by Matthew Lutton.

Photo: Pia Johnson

The sprawling house at number one Cloud Street in Perth is haunted by a nefarious past in which Indigenous Australians were marginalised. Their spirits live on there. Circumstances see the property inherited by Sam Pickles (Bert Labont), who loves a punt. An accident affecting one of his hands has rendered him all but useless, so moving to Perth gives him and his family a second chance … one they quickly blow. His frequently intoxicated wife, Dolly (Natasha Herbert), treats him shamefully, while she plays around.

Hard up for money, the Pickles take in the Lambs; a family of eight. Lester Lamb (Greg Stone) and wife, Oriel (Alison Whyte) have their own travails. Their popular son, known as Fish (Benjamin Oakes), is not the child he was after he nearly drowned. Left brain-damaged, he sees the world around him differently from others. He has visions. Both families are from working class backgrounds, but have a decidedly different work ethic.

Cloudstreet shines a light on the lives of the Lambs and the Pickles and those they meet. Story elements are bridged through narration, where the characters address the audience directly.

Among the standout performers in the 12-strong cast is Benjamin Oakes as Fish Lamb, who channels distress, loyalty and childish joy. Guy Simon realises the role persona of Fish’s troubled brother and carer, Quick, who was with him when he nearly drowned. Quick carries a huge weight on his shoulders. He pours his guilt into hard work. The Pickles’ only daughter, Rose – who has often had to pick up the broken pieces of her parents – plays a significant part in proceedings in Cloudstreet Part 2. Brenna Harding does a fine job interpreting the metamorphosis the character’s undergoes.

I won’t say too much about the staging for fear of spoiling the surprise. Suffice to say the set effectively becomes two sets in one (Zoe Atkinson is the set and costume designer), courtesy of some slick panel movements. In a number of scenes, the stage literally becomes water logged.

Photo: Pia Johnson

The impact of the soundscape in Cloudstreet can’t be over-emphasised. It has a power all its own, which is at times chilling. J. David Franzke is responsible for the sound design, while Paul Jackson is the lighting designer.

This is a special piece of work, not readily forgotten. It’s affecting and effective. I was absorbed from the start – a tribute to all who have done the evocative source material justice. Cloudstreet is playing at Merlyn Theatre, at Malthouse Theatre, until 16 June 2019. Its two parts run over four hours; so I suggest seeing the two parts on consecutive nights.

Alex First

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