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Guest Blog: That rare marsupial - an Australian play in London

Ahead of next week's UK premiere of Brendan Cowell’s dark comedy Happy New at the Old Red Lion, cast member Josie Taylor, recently seen on stage in My Name is Rachel Corrie and on screen in Tamara Drewe, asks why so few Australian plays make it to these shores.

It’s 2007. I’m watching a production of David Harrower's Blackbird and I’ve decided the elegant figure hovering in the shadows at the back of theatre must be Cate Blanchett. Almost definitely probably possibly Cate Blanchett.

It’s not too big a leap for the imagination; she is, after all, the play’s director. We’re at the Sydney Theatre Company, where the vowels may be flatter, but Blackbird still has the searing bite that made it a hit in London. Flash-forward to 2010 and Sydney’s major theatre calendars are awash with Brit imports—including not one, but two Polly Stenham plays. Everyone from Martin Crimp to Nina Raine is having a moment in the southern sun. Which begs the question: why isn’t the play trade going the other way?

London has seen a thin smattering of Aussie imports in recent years, notably Michael Attenborough’s 2009 production of Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling at the Almeida, and Tommy Murphy’s Holding the Man at Trafalgar Studios in 2010.

Both productions represented that rare brand of export-grade Australiana. The stories may be set Down Under, but they aren’t necessarily reliant on broad cultural archetypes to draw houses. There are no convicts, no barmaids, no giant sequined stilettos, the humanity is universal, the sunscreen optional.

New Australian writing never went to finishing school. One could argue that it’s uniquely heretical in the western world. Exciting, yes, but possibly a risk for foreign producers. Why go Aussie when there is an abundance of plays from larger markets with more money and scope for development before they arrive on the West End’s doorstep?

Maybe it’s time to take that risk. Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald in 2010, the then artistic director of Sydney’s Company B, Neil Armfield was optimistic about the future of Australian playwriting: ''I think we're actually in a rather good time, an extremely promising time. There's another generation coming through… I think that generation is very interesting.''

The most popular play of Company’ B’s 2010 season was, in fact, a home grown one: Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie. A “leading light among stage writers of his generation,” perhaps he’s best known to UK audience for his TV work. Not only did he pen the third episode of BBC4’s The Slap, but Cowell, also an actor, played a role in Episode 9.

Back in 2003, Frantic Assembly gave Cowell’s stage play Rabbit its first UK outing, Dominic Cavendish calling his “playful-poetic style” both sophisticated and fresh.

Next week (31 January) sees the UK premiere of another of Brendan Cowell’s dark comedies, Happy New, at the Old Red Lion. Working on it has invigorated me not only as an actor, but as a card-carrying Australian. It’s a unique and exotic creature - poetic, funny and deeply moving. The action takes place on New Year’s Eve in Sydney as two brothers come to terms with a dramatic incarceration in the mother’s chicken coop as children. Lacking in table manners and drawing on many forms, metaphorically speaking, you might say the play is like a mammal that lays eggs.

Marsupial in nature, it could only have come from one place: Australia.


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