Under Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong, the Malthouse enabled some outstanding pieces of theatre to emerge from independent companies. My Darling Patricia‘s Africa was among the best of the best. It now returns for a nationwide tour. The Melbourne season ends on Saturday April 30 at the North Melbourne Arts House, Meat Market. Don’t miss it.
[Note: The review below was written from the original season, performed at the Malthouse in 2009. There have been a few cast changes and tweaks in emphasis since then, but given the brevity of this season, I thought I'd post the old review here, rather than wait for the new one to be published in The Age.]
Africa, My Darling Patricia, Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street Southbank, November 12 – 29, 2009.
In the West, puppetry has a traditional association with comedy. At the culmination of its artistic residency at the Malthouse, local company My Darling Patricia has created something extraordinary – a masterpiece of puppet theatre that will make you weep.
The show is inspired by the story of two German children, aged 5 and 6, who made secret plans to elope to Africa and put them into action. (They only got as far as the Hanover train station before drawing the attention of police).
In Africa, My Darling Patricia takes this whimsical human interest story about the unfettered imagination of young children, and wrenches it into a dire reality of squalor and parental neglect.
The adults are played by actors, but the three children in the show are puppets: a feisty young girl, Courtney, her wide-eyed baby sister, and their friend, a fragile and haunted-looking boy called Cheety.
Part of what makes us feel for these characters is the loving and detailed puppet construction. But it’s the wizardly puppeteering, from Clare Britton, Alice Osborne and Sam Routledge, that brings them to life by combining traditional comic elements – the ungainly emulation of human movement, the self-conscious artifice of the medium – with more subtle, life-like acts of manipulation and ventriloquism.
The stage design creates two overlapping worlds. The foreground, inhabited by the puppets, is an apartment with toys and trash littered over unwashed tiles; the background is a shadow realm of adults, partly obscured by a translucent screen.
As a result, we witness events the children don’t. Courtney’s wild and foul-mouthed mum, played with aching ferocity by Jodie Le Visconte, drinks and parties too much and moves through a string of abusive partners (Matt Prest). The Department of Human Services pays a call.
Blithe to all this, the kids take refuge in an imaginary Africa. Where we see poverty and filth, they find giraffes and flamingos and leopards.
The most heart-wrenching moments come when adults invade this imagined space. In one horrific scene, a game turns into the suggestion of pedophilia. In the final sequence, Courtney’s mum cleans up the apartment and vacates, leaving Cheety alone and abandoned … although through the magic of the set, the empty flat is transformed by savannah grass and an African sunrise.
Africa is beautiful and savage theatre, marrying virtuosic technical accomplishment to an empathic and ruthlessly observed understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse. Though you leave feeling pity for the kids in this story, it is tempered with awe at a child’s imagination, which can turn even the grimmest environment into a wonderland.