A compendium of rock clichés, or a searing reality check on a band re-forming in their encroaching middle-age to plug back into the big money concert market? Andrew Upton – whose blistering version of Gorky’s Philistines was a National Theatre highlight last year – has talked the talk and walked the walk in his new play (first seen at the Wharf Theatre in Sydney last October) but the end result is a bit of a dog’s dinner.
Who cares, frankly, about the soul-searching, dead-of-night meanderings of a quartet of deeply unappetising blokes who could pluck a few chords and batter themselves into oblivion on booze and drugs? I thought I might, at first, as John Hannah’s spindly Scottish songwriter spews a rhythmic love poem that will come back with full studio treatment at the end of the play.
And could Philip Seymour Hoffman’s production – which marks the first fruit of a three-way producing collaboration between his own LAByrinth Theatre Company in New York, the Sydney Theatre Company run by Upton and his wife Cate Blanchett (pretty and pellucid in black at the first night) and our own Ambassador Theatre Group -- combine the manic hilarity of a film like Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap with a look at the way emotional and domestic life has been compromised in the lifestyle? The show’s ambitions lie in the second domain, as John struggles almost silently with the zombie-like wreckage of his own wife Lynn (Susan Prior) who disappears on benders and uses the freezer tray in the fridge as a toilet.
Richard Roberts’s design is an expensively appointed kitchen and living area with Rothko-esque daubs on the walls and an upper exit into the recording studio where the quartet run through the back catalogue. The house is John’s palatial, remote country mansion, though it’s not even clear what country, friends, is this. Co-writer Phil, also Scottish (Paul Hilton), turns out to be John’s brother; the other two, Lee (Joseph Kennedy) and the slobbish, cuddly Moon (Steve Rodgers) are Aussies.
Even more unsavoury than the band is their manager Sam (Jeremy Sims) who is supposed to be cutting some deals but is also trying to re-ignite his sexual liaison with Phil’s girlfriend (Ruth Gemmell); this he does in some rapid, explicit cavorting over the back of the sofa. The play tails off badly with a suggestion that, after the rows and the heartache, the tour will go ahead after all and make things even worse for everyone.