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Only Heaven Knows

Photo by Robert Catto

Luckiest productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co present, ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS, Music, Book and Lyrics by Alex Harding, at the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Darlinghurst. 30 May – 1 July.

At the Hayes Theatre a revival production of, ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS, by Alex Harding, is on show. Written and performed in 1988, in the midst of the early panic and bewilderment of the AIDS crisis and the attendant heightened discrimination of the Gay community, this play was set in 1944 and 1956, and presented a story of a small group of friends, outsiders, essentially gay men and a woman friend, finding a way to live, finding a way to survive in a closed and ignorant world. The events of this story in ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS are cocooned in a melodramatic romance between a country-boy and ex-soldier, showing the ups and downs of the prejudices of the time, of the historic resilience of this ‘tribe’, that was, surely, a much needed and reassuring experience, for the emotionally besieged target audience at its creation. The strength of courage, the ability to be just ‘human’, to love whoever one wanted, and, importantly, to be able to endure by accepting and defying limiting convention could create and sustain a future – a kind of normalising equality – were some of the messages of this work. It gave a means to hope, to have faith, that vigilance and determination, charity, could make a better world for all in the frightening turmoil of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its subsequent discriminating victimisation.

Alex Harding was a member of GAY SWEATSHOP, a theatre company set up in London in 1974. Its manifesto was to provide a more realistic image of the homosexual for the public ‘and to increase the general awareness of the oppression of sexuality, both gay and straight, the impact it has on lives and the society that reinforces it.’ The company was wound up in 1997. Mr Harding came to Australia in 1984. ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS is one of many plays he wrote, BLOOD AND HONOUR (1984) being the other better known – performed as part of the 1990 Mardi Gras Festival.

ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS, is essentially a play with songs, rather than a Musical. It is made up of many, many short scenes, mapping in the first act, set in 1944, the arrival of Tim (Ben Hall) from country Victoria to Sydney, where he finds accommodation in the house of an entertainer, Guinea (Blazey Best), in the Kings Cross area, during the frenzy of the war American R&R period. He meets Lana (Hayden Tee), an extraordinary out-there gay man and two ex-soldiers, ex-lovers, Alan (Matthew Backer) and Cliff (Tim Draxl). Cliff and he find attraction and begin a romantic life together. The second act is set in 1956, with Robert Menzies as Prime Minister, where the atmosphere of the world has reverted to an oppressive and punishing sexual conservatism. Life and its many evolutionary intrusions enter the romantic lives/fantasies of all and sundry, in the play, with realistic and weighty consequences.

In a familiar and bald storytelling structure with, relatively, cliche character types, the events of the play can have an accumulative soap-opera melodrama affect. It kind of dates the play as entertainment, today. However, the ‘creakiness’ of the machine parts are counterbalanced with often pithy and believable dialogue from scene to scene, and in this production a company of actors that can bring it all to life with a committed and identified truthfulness that dilutes the ‘old-fashioned’ stylistic flavour.

Outstanding is Matthew Backer who has the most difficult task of playing Alan. Alan in the first act of the play is a young man banished from his wealthy family because of his sexuality and is the ex-lover of Cliff’s, both, dishonourably discharged soldiers. They share an apartment, though are not partnered, and it is when Tim appears that we watch Alan, bemusedly coping with the change to his domestic dynamics. His initial petty jealousy is superseded with acts of kindness and a sense of humour, and he seems to adjust easily. Alan appears as a warm-hearted figure of adult optimism and maturity, a figure to admire. In the second act, however, a loathing of his ‘self’ has catapulted him into seeking a medical solution to his inclinations. The social and medical darkness for a homosexual man, especially in this time (1956), seeking help: electronic shock treatment and prescribed drugs, is graphically explored with all the hopeless depressive consequences. The arc of the character is brilliantly conceived and played by Mr Backer with heartbreaking nuance of both physical and emotional detail. It is a performance of much power and carries, even for today, much meaning and truth for part of that community of men. We recognise this man not only as a figure of the past but of one of our time as well, where shame and a feeling of inadequacy drives some to unnecessary pain and injury.

Tim Draxl, creates a masculine assuredness with his portrayal of Cliff. A man, employed as a window dresser, who has accepted his sexuality, though chaffing against the social conditions of his time, who longs for the conditions of a normal life: to have a home, partner and future just like the rest of the world about him. Mr Draxl’s Cliff has a steady fearless passion but also a stubborn need for the accoutrements of the mainstream lifestyle: a type of equality that is really a kind of conformity and innate conservatism. Cliff’s inability to share the adventures, dreams of his lover, to take a journey to a new world, restricts and narrows his life, giving him instead a kind of emotional martyrdom to dress his fate in, which he resignedly, ‘nobly’ embraces, as he shakes hands and farewells Tim in the expected manner of the world around him. In my estimation ‘a noble coward’. A sad figure.

Ben Hall, playing Tim, the author’s hero, has a natural boyish charm and carries the demands of the role with a lightweight and gently sophisticated insight. The performance, however, lacks the real charisma of the excited focus for all of the satellite characters surrounding him. Mr Hall floats on the slipstream energy of the other performers – essentially a reactor rather than a generator of action – rather than as the force of nature that propels the story forward, pulling all forward, and shaping the action of the play with Tim’s growing awakening to his coming of age/manhood, maturity – embracing the possibility of a fulfilled future no matter his sexuality.

The broader character types of Lana and Guinea are amply embraced with flamboyant gusto though anchored by observed realities and truthfulness by Mr Tee and Ms Best. Both have a sense of the period detail and restraint of the world they are meant to inhabit. Both relish the singing opportunities with powerhouse and classic musical theatre bravado, when required. For, mostly, the lyrics of the short songs carry the story forward and only occasionally become statements of politics or emotional demonstration.

The music has been supervised by Daniel Edmunds and Musical Director Michael Tyack, on a hidden piano, gives the sound a lush and empathetic tonal quality of support. Not much of the music is of the take home- memorable kind. There is adequate Movement Direction (not much real dance) from Ellen Simpson.

Although this play is supposedly set in Kings Cross it could be set anywhere in bohemian Sydney of the time – I kept visualising the world of Ruth Park’s THE HARP IN THE SOUTH, set in Surry Hills. The Kings Cross of the play adds little dynamic to the action of the play or this production (say in contrast to the another Australian play set in the same initial period, Bob Herbert’s NO NAMES, NO PACK DRILL), and the Set Design solution by Brian Thomson seems to acknowledge that. It is made up of four different levelled platforms, with one backing wall with an abstracted ‘sloshed’ white paint effect of unfinished work – a nowhere place – more purgatory than heaven, I thought. The furniture needs of the scenario lack authenticity and because of the Set Design are clumsy in their arrival and exit. It is true, as well, that because of the many scenes, the change-overs, the connective shifts from one scene to the other are labour-some and time consuming, halting the momentum of the production that, unfortunately, underlines the old-fashioned structure of the piece – it is both a Design failure and a Directorial flaw (Shaun Rennie) – to, virtually have only one entrance and exit that impairs the production’s fluidity. The Lighting by Trent Suidgeest is mostly, simply pragmatic with not much dramatic or atmospheric heft. Visually the production is not very arresting or supportive, except for the Costume Design, by Emma Vine, which anchors the time of the play imaginatively for the audience.

Shaun Rennie has created a respectful, heartfelt revival of this work. His nurturing of the performances from his actors works to lift the work out of its difficulties as a contemporary performance piece. ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS works best as a history lesson for the community, both ‘gay and straight’, fulfilling the objective manifesto of the GAY SWEATSHOP  theatre company, that was the origin of Mr Hardings’ artistic endeavours. It has, as well, a melancholic nostalgia that permeates the work and, I reckon, it is a timely recall for the contemporary LGBTI community to throw a light on, to illustrate, the primary struggles of their forebears in their pursuit for their rights which is the origin of the MARDI GRAS MARCH and its consequent annual Festival in March of each year since 1978. Mr Rennie flags a contemporary concern that is demanding EQUALITY ‘in lights’, that connects the time line of the play’s world with the present. The creeping conservatism sweeping the world in trying to find a diversionary ‘other’ to direct fear, anger, and hate towards. The LGBTI community has become a vulnerable and obvious target: Russia, Indonesia, the alt-right of our so called democracies, etc, etc. Resilience and active vigilance. This production reminds the community why there is a constant need to remain alert, active to grant and preserve basic human rights for all.

The scene writing and the performances, the look at a particular, and relevant history of persecution and survival that Mr Harding has created makes this work and production a recommended experience.

N.B. Mr Harding has dedicated this production to the memory of the late James Waites.