Thank You For Being A Friend

Thank You For Being A Friend
Written by Jonathan Worsley and Thomas Duncan Watt. Directed by Neil Gooding and Luke Joslin. Midsumma. Theatre Works from Jan 9th, 2014.

There’s an old saying that Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. That’s obviously not true when it comes to our feelings for our favourite old TV shows. The Golden Girls made such an impact in the mid eighties to early nineties that it seems like only yesterday that I saw it (in fact it was …the re-runs are on Foxtel). Last night’s opening night audience was singing the theme song before the show started. A very good sign. Avenue Q proved that people would watch and identify with life size hand puppets….another good sign. Then, if you add a terrific facsimile and familiar set by David Horne, this production has three things going for it. If you add a very strong cast, you would think this is a given triumph. So what went wrong?

If you are going to do a show with puppets, then the puppets themselves must be exceptional; capable of expression, able to pull focus away from the handlers. They need to convince us that THEY are real, and the comedy is about them. Unfortunately, the quality of these puppets isn’t in that ballpark. They look only vaguely like the characters…. (Dorothy…Bea Arthur’s persona…. has absolutely no similarity)…and seem incapable of any facial flexibility or expression. No matter how hard I tried to concentrate on the puppets, I found myself looking only at the performers, and that defeats the purpose (compare that to Avenue Q where the audience quickly forgets there are puppet handlers.) Secondly, while I applaud the young comedy writers for their one-liners (even though most of them are old…or should I say tried and true) they clearly have little experience in how to shape a story or create a dramatic throughline in a play. The structure is all over the place, the story never decides what it is, and it is strangely lacking in any real “family” feel or connection between the characters. The Golden Girls, though it tackled many contentious subjects, was always, at its heart, about family; about people who love each other even though they hurt each other in the process. The bad thing is that the whole show becomes about one-liners with very little to prop them up – and that’s not enough to sustain a two hour 2 act play. The good thing is that it is very fixable. The script needs tightening…the focus on story needs to be sharper (often it gets lost), the one-liners need to have context and come from character rather than for no reason other than bitching, and the puppets need to be more flexible and recognisable.

There are some good performances with Chrystal de Grussa phenomenal as Blanche (but again, we were all watching her, not the puppet), with all the mannerisms, intonations, and comic timing of Rhue McLanahan. Donna Lee, a great musical performer, was wonderfully dry and deadpan as Sophia. Julia Billington hasn’t quite got the Betty White accent or vaguery yet, but it was opening night and there’s a strong sense that it will only take a few more performances. Nigel Turner-Carroll is excellent in a number of roles, and a stunning looking young actor who is new to me. Darren Mapes is an excellent performer, but he just isn’t Dorothy. I can understand the rationale in having a man play Dorothy, she of the dark baritone voice and androgynous looks, but how can it work if we are looking at a man, and that man has a voice considerably higher than Bea Arthur’s? Dororthy overall needs the greatest rethink….the puppet, the clothes…the lipsynching (not once did the puppet’s mouth move in tandem with the lines) and even the fact that Dorothy was so much taller the puppet needs to be worked from a greater height to denote her towering presence. Arthur’s timing was also imperative to the character…. the dry take, the beat halfway through a line, the sardonic throwaway. Without those things in place the show is never going to work as it should.

Direction overall could use more fluidity but there are lovely touches like the commercial breaks with appropriate ads (how great to see the Gobbledock again).

As it stands, this is a pleasant fun night. With the extra work it could be truly sensational, and headed for Broadway. It depends what the producers are aiming for.

Coral Drouyn

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