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The press night for Meredith Oakes’ new play was stolen by a small baby, who came on stage in the last scene and conducted herself with perfect sang-froid. She clearly hadn’t done her research on the Royal Court: the fate of babies in some of the theatre’s greatest hits – Saved, Blasted – isn’t encouraging.
Compared with those in-yer- face shockers, Scenes from the Back of Beyond is a genteel affair. But this wry, witty piece is a state-of-the-nation play – and an interesting one, since the nation it focuses on is Australia.
It is 1959 and we are in the Sydney garden of a middle-aged, middle-class couple, Bill (Martin Turner) and Helen (Penny Downie). Bill makes radio parts for a US-owned company; the couple have a teenage daughter, grow their own vegetables and have visions of utopia. But there is grit here: progress seems frustratingly out of reach and they disagree about achieving it.
For Helen, the future lies with communism: she refuses to believe in Soviet prison camps and oppression. For Bill, science is the answer: “Once people are free of material pressures, they’ll become beautiful.” But while they squabble, the security and happiness they do have is snatched away.
Bill befriends a neighbour, an atomic scientist (Daniel Lapaine), who turns out to be a creep, with designs on the couple’s daughter. Meanwhile, at work Bill clashes with a time- and-motion expert, sent from the US to rationalise the company.
The play is, almost inevitably, too schematic. But it pinpoints poignantly a tipping point mid- century, when utopia seemed possible, and it raises resonant questions about the nature of progress. It is beautifully performed in Ramin Gray’s understated production and is delightfully witty. I warm to any play containing the lament: “And we’re stuck here in this pointless paradise.”
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