Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Cold Light

Adapted by Alana Valentine. Based on the novel by Frank Morehouse. Directed by Caroline Stacey. Set Designer Marie T. Reginato. Costume designer. Imogen Keen. Lighting designer. Linda Buck. Sound designer Kimmo Vennonen. Movement designer Zsuzsi Slobolay. Voice Coach. Dianna Nixon. Street 2. The Street Theatre. World Premiere March 4 – March 18. 2017.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

It would be too easy to categorize Alana Valentine’s adaptation of Frank Morehouse’s novel, Cold Light, as simply a Canberra story. Certainly Walter Burley-Griffin and Marion Mahoney’s designs for the National Capital feature in Maria T Reginato’s expansive and striking set design and the action of the play takes place in Canberra. But the story of Edith Campbell-Berry’s return to Canberra after working at the League of Nations is far more than an account of her experience in Canberra between 1950 and 1979. Cold Light in Valentine’s faithful adaptation offers an illuminating insight into the covert and intriguing world of international diplomacy, the political jockeying for power and prestige, the rampant distrust of the emerging Communist party and the male dominated society that subjugated an intelligent, experienced and world travelled woman to the role of office dogsbody. Whitlam recognizes Edith’s capability by appointing her to an unpaid advisory position on the newly established Atomic Energy Agency. At the close of the play, we are left with the impression that Campbell Berry’s true potential was never realized in an antipodean, male-dominated society.
Kiki Skountzos as Amelia. Tobias Cole as Ambrose. Sonia Todd as Edith

The Street Theatre’s production under the direction of CEO, Caroline Stacey is an ambitious and daunting task. Six actors play more than twenty characters, with only Sonia Todd maintaining the central role of Campbell Berry. The actors transition with fluid ease from one character to another, deftly portraying a range of roles while paying more careful attention to more integral characters to the plot. Tobias Cole’s cross dressing British diplomat husband of Edith epitomizes the private and secret world that dare not threaten protocol and position. When the fa├žade falls, disgrace falls, touchingly captured by Cole’s sensitive portrayal. Edith must also chart the difficult path of family ties and a brother, closely aligned to the Communist Party. Craig Alexander lends a vulnerability and pathos to the character of Fred, ideologically driven and disillusioned by the terrible acts, perpetrated in the name of his cause. Campbell Berry’s instinctive wile involves her with Richard, a member of Menzies’ Uranium committee, played with assured effect  and opportunistic guile by Gerard Carroll. There is also strong support from Kiki Skountzos as Janice, Fred’s friend and ally. Skountzos also plays the role of Danish born Amelia who secures a position in the government over Campbell Berry, now regarded as too old to hold a position. Nick Byrne’s country town mayor, George T McDowell, offers a simple, likeable performance in his eulogy to Edith and Fred’s departed parents. It is a revealing contrast to his portrayals of Menzies and Whitlam, caught up in the world of federal politics far from the more honest politics of Edith and Fred’s hometown. The disadvantage of a small cast portraying such a tapestry of fascinating characters in a story that covers almost thirty years is that peripheral characters lean towards caricature, functional rather than more fully developed. Stacey has an excellent cast who work well as an ensemble but may leave minor roles underdeveloped.
Stacey’s direction verges on the operatic. Her production is elegantly stylish, sophisticated and fluid, gliding easily from scene to scene, punctuated by verses from Adam Lindsay Gordon’s “The Rhyme of Joyous Garde”, recited by Todd and choral interludes by the cast. Cole gracefully glides into an anthroposophical performance of a Cole Porter number, choreographed by movement designer Zsuzsi Soboslay. There is a sensual, rhythmic choreography to the production  The cast change costumes and set on stage and slide the colourful Mondrian frames from side to side in a pattern of moves that sweeps audiences through the scenes and across the years.
The production shines with professional gloss in every aspect. It is also refreshing to see such a high level of excellence from local theatre workers on stage and behind the scenes. Valentine’s script may still be a work in progress at this world premiere production, but it is the work of an established and imaginative playwright, who has managed to weave Morehouse’s intricate narrative into a cohesive and intriguing drama. At times, it may be too concerned with relating the historical fact more than the human experience, and the inclusion of Lindsay Gordon’s Rhyme is somewhat obscure but these are minor quibbles that in no way overshadow the excellent experience of this Canberra world premiere.  

Photo by Shelley Higgs