Theatre: Poor Boy


A play with songs by Matt Cameron and Tim Finn

Directed by Simon Phillips

Starring: Matthew Newton, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, Linda Cropper, Matt Dyktynski, Sara Gleeson, Sarah Peirse, Jed Rosenberg, Greg Stone and Abi Tucker.

Duality is the key theme of Poor Boy. Writers Matt Cameron and Tim Finn build almost everything in the play with two tones. There are two families, eight people, four boys and four girls. A birth and a death, the black and white of the piano keys and of the Zebra, whose image appears so frequently in both acts. Each character has a counterpart, and the first pair we meet is seven year-old Jeremy Glass (alternated by Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke and Jed Rosenberg) and adult Danny Prior (Matthew Newton). Danny has been dead for some time, and on Jeremy’s seventh birthday, he manifests inside the boy, completely and without warning. The young boy is gone and the adult is now trapped in this child’s body, the two actors sharing the single character concurrently. This event forms the play’s foundation and the exposition follows. This slightly convoluted process of fleshing out the play dominates the first half of act one. It looks good but gets a little messy as Cameron and Finn overexert themselves, attempting to establish each character in the ensemble as quickly as possible. Once it’s over though, the Poor Boy truly comes into its own.

The songs of New Zealand-export Tim Finn are worked seamlessly into the play, as the interceding lives of the Prior and the Glass families cause distress and elation. At first it is unbelievable – Danny’s family can’t believe he’s come back and Jeremy’s won’t accept he’s gone. The two mothers, Viv (Linda Cropper) and Ruth (Sarah Peirse) behave with all the loving intensity of their burgeoning maternal instincts, their relationship soon devolving into a tug of war for the boy. But on the other hand, there’s Danny’s brother Miles (Matt Dyktynski) and Jeremy’s sister Sadie (Sara Gleeson), perfect pictures of sibling rivalry and neglect, who don’t want their brothers back.

There is much humour attempted, but it is thrown haphazardly into the play so it never really works to great effect. It’s immaterial though – drama is Poor Boy’s drawcard. It is a superb tale, full of messes of the human condition and brought to life by an ensemble that shines. The roles are all close to equal in size, so the production is well-balanced and allows for some beautiful chorus numbers. Oddly (and appropriately) the Sydney Theatre Company bills it as ‘a play with songs’ instead of ‘musical’. It doesn’t matter – both definitions are apt and one can only assume the choice was made for marketing purposes. Much more important is when the songs occur, as each one expresses emotions so big they can’t be constrained by simple dialogue; they burst somberly into a musical score that rocks and sweeps the audience up with it.

The Sydney Theatre always makes for an intimate performance space, despite its size and director Simon Phillips has used the space smartly. He deliberately inundates the audience with onstage action at times, making it impossible to focus on all things at once – a nice reflection of the play’s polite inner chaos.

You will love this if: You’re tired of perfectly happy family stories like Packed to the Rafters.

You will hate this if: You’re expecting a straight-out performance of Tim Finn’s classics.

Poor Boy has just finished playing at Sydney Theatre Company (Hickson Road, The Rocks)

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