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Review Round-up: Aussie Rain Shines for Critics?

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Australian stage and screen writer Andrew Bovell’s climate change epic When the Rain Stops Falling received its European premiere last Thursday (21 May 2009, previews from 14 May) at the Almeida theatre, in a production directed by Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough that continues until 4 June (See News, 14 Oct 2008).

First seen in February 2008 at the Adelaide Festival, When the Rain Stops Falling spans four generations and two continents, moving from the claustrophobia of a 1950s London flat to the heart of the Australian desert. The interconnected stories of seven people are woven together as they confront mysteries of the past in order to understand their future.

The ensemble cast are Australians Simon Burke and Leah Purcell, as well as Lisa Dillon, Naomi Bentley, Phoebe Nicholls, Jonathan Cullen, Richard Hope, Tom Mison and Sargon Yelda. The production is designed by Miriam Buether.

When the Rain Stops Falling sharply divided overnight critics, with champions declaring it “suberb”, “fiendishly ingenious”, “shrewd” and “genuinely moving” and detractors finding it overly long (two hours and 15 minutes without an interval), “clunky”, “melodramatic”, “absurd” and “gloomy”. Whether for or against, there was appreciation for Bovell’s “audacious” and complex structure and for Michael Attenborough’s direction, which one critic found to be “the finest he has done” in his seven-year tenure at the Almeida (See News, 10 Jan 2002).

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “It takes a long time to work out who’s who and what’s what in Australian playwright Andrew Bovell’s play at the Almeida, but you have two and a quarter uninterrupted hours to do so. It’s neat and it’s fairly enthralling, but I’m not exactly convinced the effort’s worth it ... Top marks to the actors for sticking with all this, and to designer Miriam Buether and lighting designer Colin Grenfell for combining with Attenborough on such a beautifully presented Rubik’s cube of a drama. But this is one of those plays where the more information you receive the less you really feel you want it.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “It is good to be reminded that there is more to Australian theatre than Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This superb play by Andrew Bovell has the same fiendishly ingenious cat’s cradle structure as his Speaking in Tongues, which was filmed as Lantana. And it tackles even richer themes: father-son relationships, the past's ability to devour the future, the cataclysmic nature of the environment ... This is a play for those who enjoy tightly wrought drama. Michael Attenborough's production is also the finest he has done in his Almeida tenure: the combination of Miriam Buether's design and Stephen Warbeck's elliptical piano music perfectly expresses the play's mood. There are glowing performances from Tom Mison as Gabriel, Phoebe Nicholls and Lisa Dillon as his mother's older and younger selves and Jonathan Cullen as the disappearing father. But all nine actors are equally good and the image of them seated around a table carries an almost Biblical weight. In fact, one of the strangest features of this utterly compelling play is that, for all its rationalist instincts, it suggests that the sins of the father are always visited upon the children.”

  • Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “I’ve grown used to paedophilia as a plot device but this is the first time I’ve seen it linked to climate change. Andrew Bovell’s clunky Australian play suggests we repeat the mistakes of our parents. The discovery of a father’s unwholesome desires in late-Fifties London kicks off a repetitive cycle of paternal abandonment that stretches across two continents and 30 years into the future ... The overlapping flashback structure is audacious, the point serious but most of the dialogue is of melodramatic dreadfulness and the plotting frankly absurd ... It’s hard to believe that Bovell, who wrote the infinitely more subtle film Lantana, among much else, penned this stuff. Harder still to see why Almeida director Michael Attenborough decided to bring it over and strand some excellent actors — and some not so good ones — in it ... The on‑stage rain effects are nice, though. Maybe Attenborough and Bovell thought Brits would like the weather references.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Andrew Bovell’s bold and sensitive play is much concerned with the weather ... They successfully escape the ceaseless rain of the title, even though it threatens the planet. They’re less lucky with the emotional storms, downpours, floods menacing their lives. Does this mean that Michael Attenborough’s production teems too obviously with the crash, or rather splash, of symbols? Not for me. I was riveted from the moment that Richard Hope’s superb Gabriel York ... began to deliver a long opening monologue ... The play is packed with quirky touches and droll parallels and, at its best, exudes a sense of wonder and mystery. If it has a fault, it’s that it overexplains matters which might be better left uncertain or ambiguous. Yet the writing is strong enough to keep you caring about the play’s four generations ... Bovell has the skill to keep you intrigued yet abreast of dynastic developments ... The play (could), I suppose, be accused of treating global disaster as if it was mainly a metaphor for family breakdown — but is always shrewd and sharp and sometimes genuinely moving.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “Who would have thought there would be two concurrent London productions set in Alice Springs? That’s where the drag performers are heading in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and now Andrew Bovell’s inventive family saga opens there too ... While you can’t get lighter or more exuberant than Priscilla, this deadly serious drama positively revels in its own melancholy ... Bovell is rather too in love with the self-conscious symmetries he sets up, a greater problem is patches of wooden writing ... as well as an over-reliance on plotting cliché (there is the obligatory paedophile at the heart of this story) and coincidence. Director Michael Attenborough has chosen to keep the same gloomy tone throughout ... The nine-strong cast sometimes seem weighed down by this misery ... But where it works, there is a real power ... And while two hours without an interval seems a slog at first, the play gathers an unexpected energy in its finally straight. It ends up being hauntingly evocative of the past generations that shape all our presents. With a more polished script and a less mawkish style, it could be even better.”

    - by Terri Paddock


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