Sunday, April 1, 2012

Syncopation by Allan Knee

Emma Palmer                                                               Justin Cotta

Syncopation by Allan Knee, presented by Critical Stages and The Follies Company directed by Stephen Helper at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 27 to April 5, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 30

Noel Coward would have called this a ‘nice’ play.  It makes for an enjoyable evening, but it’s the dancing that gives it a feel-good quality despite a predictable, melodramatic and sentimental plot. 

Fortunately the dance work by Emma Palmer (Anna) and Justin Cotta (Henry) carried the day, while the quality of their acting kept our interest through a too long first half and another too long second half.  There was as much a sigh of relief at 10.40pm for the play having finally ended, as there was the inevitable sigh of satisfaction that at last these two determined ballroom dancers had reached the conclusion that they just belonged together.  Si-i-i-igh!

It’s amusing to see in one week two plays with the same basic romantic structure – Midsummer (reviewed March 28) and Syncopation – but with such different degrees of theatrical originality.  Syncopation has in the background something of the same issues of social class (in 1912 New York) as Midsummer (in modern Edinburgh), but the plot – will the seamstress marry the boring but conventional shopkeeper, the rich sophisticated but married man in the cape, or the dancing meatworker – is no more telling than the plot of Out in the Cold, Cold Snow, the well-known melodrama of the late 19th Century.

Considering that by 1912 Bernard Shaw had already written Major Barbara and was about to write Pygmalion and Heartbreak House and in America Eugene O’Neill was busy writing his first plays while convalescing from tuberculosis, I can only wonder where Knee is coming from.  It was nice to hear Anna tell a rather bemused Henry that she wanted women to be allowed to vote, and the idea of freedom from the conventional restraints is played out as the two come together and dance, but, for a 21st Century play, it’s all too predictable.  The characters are cyphers, carrying out the author’s predetermined construct.  Knee needs to study David Greig, the author of Midsummer, to see what I mean.

Certainly see the play, because the dancing is lovely and the sigh factor gets to you in the end.

But there are backstage questions that seem to need answering. 

One is about hype. “Syncopation is the only truly integrated play with dance in the world” says Stephen Helper on the website

Sorry – not true.  Try Wallflowering by Peta Murray, a much better script than Syncopation, in my view, and an Australian play which travelled to England and the USA.  We saw a revival of this 1989 play, at Tuggeranong Arts Centre, starring Noeline Brown and Doug Scroope, in 2004.  Its original production, after a reading at Sydney Theatre Company, was by Carol Woodrow’s Canberra Theatre Company.

The other concern is about management. Critical Stages and The Follies Company did not supply The Q, at least until four days into the run when I saw Syncopation, with printed programs for the audience.  Some posters for the foyer had arrived, but even if all the audience had gathered around to read them, they might not have been clear about the names of the actors performing that night.  Now that I have searched the website, I see that the cast has changed over time.  The professionalism of Emma Palmer and Justin Cotta was exemplary on the night, with no indication of anything amiss, but if I were one of the actors I would not have been pleased.

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