Turns by Reg Livermore, with Nancye Hayes and piano accompaniment by Vincent Colagiuri. Christine Dunstan Productions directed by Tom Healey at Canberra Playhouse, June 21-25 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
The story of Turns – a pantomime with a twist – is entirely fictional. Gladys Moncrieff, Australia’s ‘Queen of Song’ is claimed to be the mother of Nancye Hayes’ character, Marjorie Joy. Marjorie’s son, Alistair Moncrieff, claims his mother shot Gladys on stage as she opened wide to sing high C. In case you want to know, the real Gladys Moncrieff had no children and died in hospital in 1976 at the age of 83, having retired from the stage with her husband Tom Moore to the Isle of Capri in 1968.
Livermore’s author’s note says ‘Turns is a broad reflection on show business, matters of identity, of family and dependency, of the memory, and the commonality of an experience that lies ahead for most of us.’ This refers, presumably, not to death, since that lies ahead for all of us, but to dementia – although European studies show incident rates of 2.5 per 1000 at age 65, growing to 85.6 per 1000 at age 90. In other words most of us will not suffer from dementia, but 95 year old Marjorie Joy certainly does, and I begin to suspect that her son Alistair (who I suppose is about the same age as me and Reg Livermore) is headed in the same direction.
I should calm any fears by noting that on stage and at the pre-show talk hosted by Helen Musa on June 21, neither Reg (72) nor Nancye (67) showed the slightest signs of any forms of dementia that I could detect – but of course that may merely reflect my own shortcomings now I am 70. What I do know is that there is no way I could hoof, sing, mime, speak, shout, and hold an audience with anything like the verve and discipline of these two. Or remember my lines. So I’ll stick to criticism, thank you very much.
I guess what Livermore, as author, has shown is that not only is theatre all a matter of illusion, but that life itself is largely illusory. When we see Alistair attempting to cope with caring for his impossible mother, he appears to be normal. He feels duty bound even while her behaviour is frustrating. We find her funny even as we sympathise with him.
When Alistair speaks to us after his mother’s death, we begin by assuming that he is normal, but the twist is that he reveals to us his own need for illusion to sustain a sense of personal integrity. Like his mother, he must use dress-ups as a way to create a life for himself. We are back in the world of theatre, where fiction can be made to seem real, even including a story about the death of Gladys Moncrieff.
What does it all mean? Well, I suggest that Hayes and Livermore, who have both been named among Australia’s Top 100 Entertainers of the 20th Century, in the musical theatre tradition, can be seen as the children of Gladys Moncrieff. Hayes’ career began as a dancer in the JC Williamson 1961 production of My Fair Lady, while Livermore’s got under way at the Phillip Street Theatre in 1957. I had arrived in Australia in 1955 and was certainly made well aware of the Queen of Song – though I have to admit that my 1957 highlight was Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, sitting up in the Gods at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown. Gladys Moncrieff was a pleasant radio voice for me, but one who didn’t often make it among AE Floyd’s Music Lovers’ Hour on the ABC each week. Maybe even then I was too pretentious for my own good.
So I guess I have to conclude that although Turns and Reg Livermore as a writer can’t match O’Neill and Long Day’s Journey, this is an entertainment with something more than mere enjoyment – a ‘broad reflection on show business’ as the author has claimed.