Saturday, May 25, 2013

HOW TO BE (or not to be) LOWER by Max Cullen

HOW TO BE (or not to be) LOWER written and performed by Max Cullen.  Directed by Caroline Stacey; scenic and visual design by Maragarita Georgiadis; lighting design by Nick Merrylees; sound design by Seth Edwards-Ellis.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, May 25 – June 1, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 25

There’s a lot in Max Cullen’s portrayal of Lennie Lower that’s a sad reflection on ‘traditional’ Australia.  Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for me, I arrived in this godforsaken country in 1955, some eight years after Lennie Lower died.  I never heard anyone mention his name until I read the adverts for this show.  I was therefore naturally intrigued by the prospect of Max Cullen’s writing and performing How to be....

Unfortunately, I am now rather less intrigued by Lennie Lower than I thought I might be, though – fortunately – rather more intrigued by Max Cullen’s writing and performance (and by the directing and design).  Despite the fact that Lower’s famous novel Here’s Luck is apparently still in print, I can see why no-one ever told me to immerse myself in wit limited so much to obvious puns and occasional flashes of original word-play.

Cullen’s extensive research and collection of audio-visual materials certainly placed Lower into the context of the 1920s and 1930s in a jingoistic, maudlin, poverty-stricken Australia.  However, it would be interesting to see Barry Dicken’s Lonely Lennie Lower (1982) as a comparison.  Unfortunately, of course, I missed it then and the production 20 years later at Melbourne’s La Mama, where it was described as “the acclaimed Barry Dickins play Lennie Lower.... This tragic comedy based on the real life story of comic journalist Lennie Lower...the foremost comic journalist of the depression era, Lennie Lower, is alone, drunk and crying...Lower jokes and entertains as he reflects on life as a newspaper 'contributor' at a time when the term 'freelance' was as unheard of as 'politically correct'.”

Max Cullen’s performance shows Lower alone, drunk and trying to pull his fragmented mental life into some kind of line, through the constant need to spout out one-liners and puns – and Cullen’s skills as an actor are amply demonstrated – but I was left not being sure what Cullen, the writer, was aiming at.

In his version, it was hard to know whether we are to see the ‘play’ as being performed by Cullen or by Lower.  The script deliberately makes explicit the fact that we are seeing a ‘play’, but Cullen does not seem to come out of the character of Lower when making this point.

It’s also not clear how we are to respond to the stories that the character Lower tells.  Did Frank Packer really pay Lower £100 per week for his comic columns in the Daily Telegraph and the Women’s Weekly?  And if so, are we to take it as tragic that Lower appears to have drunk it all, when the average wage of the day was about £3?  Are we to see Lower as a significant writer brought down by the unedifying commercialism of the likes of Packer.  If you read just the beginning of Here’s Luck – which you can do at – you might see him as a much better writer than he appears in Cullen’s pastiche of snippets from Lower’s life.

On opening night, I thought it was interesting that the audience, though clearly committed to supporting Max Cullen – cheering him on as he first appeared – and though ready to laugh mildly at Lower’s puns, did not respond with great warmth to the play.  Perhaps this is, unfortunately for Cullen, because this was a Canberra audience with different expectations at The Street Theatre than, say, a Dubbo audience at the RSL might have.

I’m not sure, just as I wasn’t sure about the ending.  Surely it was Lennie Lower, not Max Cullen, who took such a diffident bow, but it seemed inconsistent with the character we had seen before – or were we to take it that it was an inconsequential ending to a life without real meaning.  But what, then, was the meaning of the digger’s hat spotlighted at the very end, rather than Cullen himself appearing out of character for a curtain call?  Especially when Lower had deserted from the armed forces on the three occasions he had enlisted, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (at ).

So I end up with mixed feelings, fortunate or unfortunate as that may be.