Many of us will remember the television science program hosted by Professor Julius Sumner Miller in which he always famously asked “Why is it so?” This question is an underlying theme in Once in Royal David’s City. Playwright Michael Gow uses his central character Will Drummond (Francisco Lopez) to search for the meaning of life; ponder the existence of God; examine the virtues of Marxism; understand the inevitability of death; and even explore childhood events which may determine sexual orientation. Sounds heavy? Well, these questions are handled sensitively and in a light-hearted, comical approach.
The main character Will Drummond is a deep thinker. As a theatre director, he is a great admirer of German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, whose plays often reflected a Marxist slant. Will is considering giving a talk at the local high school but is procrastinating because he feels that history teachers have moved on from socialist thought. “There is no class war because there is no class system” he hears them saying. Will has a close tie with his mother Jeannie (Alice Livingstone). She is recently widowed; her husband having died from a stroke. Will has invited his mother to spend time together at a beach town north of Sydney for the Christmas period.
Jeannie is a delightful old lady. Friendly, unassuming, caring. She tells of the time when Will was seven and they went to Bondi Beach. Thousands of people are there, and Will goes missing. Jeannie describes her panic, fear and desperation in searching for Will. Finally, she finds him, safe and sound with all the lifesavers eating a paddle pop. We later hear Will’s version of this life-defining event, as he fondly remembered being impressed by the big, bronzed men around him.
Unfortunately, Jeannie takes ill and is moved to the hospital. Although she is unconscious, Will is told to keep talking to his mum. He talks about anything at all and even brings Christmas presents to open and discuss. Will is visited by Wally, the resident Christian well-wisher who knows his mother well. Will resents him being there but begins to understand a religious side to his mother that he did not know about.
The hospital scene is central to this story and will touch anyone who has sat with dying parents. There is an amusing segment where Will is at home resting while his Mum is watched over at the hospital. Will is moving between three things at once: Carols by Candlelight on television; reading the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx; and using Dr Google to find a cure for his mother. Having endured carol after carol on TV, he finally gives up when Little Drummer Boy comes on. Couldn’t agree more!
Director Patrick Howard uses a wide and deep stage to accommodate the twelve cast members. Character Will announces set changes and shares his thoughts via narration and dialogue with key players in his life. Sound designer Ryan Devlin is busy in this production as he utilises music and effects to fit each scene so well. Actors play multiple roles and they are largely on stage most of the time. The production has a ‘workshop’ feel to it which helps keep the subject matter light and enjoyable. Christmas carols helped to keep sentimentality levels high and were effective mood changers when needed.
Once in Royal David’s City is a thought-provoking reflection on the human life-cycle. Its Australian-based themes are universal, and it’s both sad and uplifting. Most importantly, it’s an entertaining 90 minutes. There’s even a special video appearance from the Professor!
Once in Royal David’s City is showing at the New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney until 13 April 2019. Bookings: www.newtheatre.org.au
For more of Paul Kiely’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Once in Royal David’s City (QT) – theatre review
- Australia Day (New Theatre) – theatre review
- Birdland (New Theatre) – theatre review
Eric Scott is a Brisbane-based entertainment and travel writer, playwright and novelist