Review: Skip Miller’s Hit Songs

by Jane

Skip Miller (Chris Pitman) stands in a gallery and looks at his photographs.  At the exhibition he is joined by brother Neville (Rory Walker), partner Alison (Lizzy Faukland), friend Augustus (Mondi Makhoba), and Patience (Assina Ntawumenya).  Patience came to Australia to find herself pasted on newspaper, bus shelters, billboards, and Skip’s agents have found her and brought her to the exhibition opening of the photographer who made her a house-hold face.   Skip Miller’s Hit Songs traces the lives of these characters on their lives, and their past which lead them to this moment.

Alison (Lizzy Falkland) and Skip (Chris Pitman) look at the photos in Skip's exhibition. Photo Chris Herzfeld

Skip, we are told, is an excellent photographer.  He goes in to the heart of war torn, drought ravaged African countries, and there he takes out his camera, and he documents.  Through the lens he brings a focused eye to a group of people who are suffering extraordinary amounts.  Through his photographs he captures unblinking eyes, and through them, we are told, you can see through to the pain and the hope, and you are captivated in the eyes of another.

We must be told these things, because the photographs shown to the audience in Skip Miller’s Hit Songs never justify this praise of a talent or dedication of a lifetime.  And if your production cannot justify the excellence of your titular character, how much of the production can really be justified at all?  In the final moment of the play, slightly confusing in its lack of explanation, Neville stands and explains just how brilliant his brother was: his talent, his hit songs, were the photographs he took.  Behind him, the wall fills with photographs of African people.  But there is nothing remarkable about these photographs; unless perhaps you were to remark on just how much they looked like the photographs we all have of ourselves, sitting in our wallets, of our identification.

The quality of photographs is the only design downfall in this production.  Unfortunately it is Sean Riley’s script which really lets the piece down.  Sean Riley’s script is over-wordy, overwrought, and largely staccato as characters talk in short bursts, often in sequences of sentences of just four words, creating an awkwardly halting dialogue that is hard to engage with. I have nothing against the use of non-naturalistic dialogue, of a construct which exists on stage that isn’t necessarily true to life off stage, but Riley’s dialogue halts and jars. It is only when the characters break free of this awkward construct in moments of heightened emotion that naturalistic bursts of sentiment can break through.

Riley’s script also fails to make sense of the disparate stories, both within one character’s life in Africa and Australia, and between the characters.  Monologue recaps serve to tell some back-story to the characters, yet these scenes never inform nor comment on the parallel action, and in particular, the resulting back-stories of Patience and Augustus don’t seem to have any impact on their characters’’ Australian development.  Perhaps just through the mare fact this show is called Skip Miller’s Hit Songs means the titular character takes over.

Skip explains to Basel the power of distance. Photo Chris Herzfeld.

There is one moment when overlapping African and Australian scenes are used to a great effect: when they show an unravelling of Skip.  It is unfortunate this is not sustained.   The longer Skip spends in Australia without returning to Africa he starts to unravel, destroying his relationship, his health.  As this downward spiral is played out, the overlapping scenes become more and more manic; sets, minimal that they are, become present in both places; and Alison watches this frenetic and unhinged overlapping of times within Skip’s mind, as Skip relives his relationship with young translator and photography student Basel (Adolphus Waylee).  This is where the overlap, and the production, is strongest.  And yet, as soon as we have this most frantic scene, the pinnacle of the production, where parallels and impacts between two lives are finally drawn out, it is dropped almost as soon as it begins, and doesn’t develop any further.

This isn’t the only strand which is dropped: the script sets itself up on the conceit that Patience came to Australia only to find her face ubiquitously plastered, everyone recognising her face.  Yet, this strand is dropped as soon as it began.  The magnitude of finding yourself famous in another country is never explored, and seems to be just an excuse to introduce her into the group of characters.

Some things are better left a mystery. Yes, but why is the trinkling of a music box one of those things? Photo Chris Herzfeld

This laziness in the writing is seen in other places: when Alison asks Skip to consider what she has given up for this relationship, but to our knowledge the only thing she has given up was the desire to never need anyone: and that doesn’t really seem like a thing to be given up at all.  In another scene, Alison warns Skip not to knock his microphone or it will rustle, yet the microphone is a floor-mounted shot-gun mic, not on Skip’s lapel.

Yet where the script disappoints, design and music elements are often captivating.  In particular, Quentin Grant’s music direction and the delectable synthesis of African and Western musical traditions played on a miscellany of instruments and voice by Grant, Jerome Lyons and Lamine Nanky smooth out some of the troubles in Riley’s script.

On Wendy Todd’s minimalist stage, a hand-packed mud wall stands decrepit behind a packed red earth.  To the left of the stage sits musicians and their great piles of instruments: guitar, cowbells, kora, balafon, among others.   Behind the musicians and to the right of the stage, in the open wing space the cast is often sitting and waiting for their entrance, adorned by the props they will be carrying on.  While these open wings can be distracting (particularly when the bored faces of the stage-hands stare blankly out on to the stage) it offers some beautiful moments: Falkland centering herself after a harrowing scene, Nanky offering an under-the-breath bless you to Grant’s sneeze.  In fact, the open wings are worth it just to watch Nanky having the most fun on that stage.

Lamine Nanky has an absolute ball. Photo Chris Herzfeld

Surely there is a moment when we can all stop praising Geoff Cobham’s lighting design?   When you open your dictionary to find Cobham adj: (lighting design) of exceptional properties: lighting was Cobham and luminous. In Skip Miller, Cobham plays with many of the techniques we’ve seen him use before, in particular sharply angled shafts of light to create focused playing spaces, and it is technically stunning as always.

While most of the photography accredited is technically uninteresting, the integration of film projections by James Kalisch, both on Todd’s mud wall and on sheets of paper are compelling.  The play opens with actors carrying paper across the stage, faces projected and moving in alignment, and this image is repeated later as faces stare out from blank paper strung from what appears to be washing lines above.

Film projected along the ground and wall also shows us Neville thinking of his son – a small boy plays across the back screen – and Skip talking about the deserts of Africa – shadows of a “river of people”, or birds circling in an otherwise empty plane.  This combination of shadows, or out-of-focus crowd at the exhibition opening, does make my question about the quality of photographs all the more pointed: if the production uses these representational techniques in some of the video design, why not use it to save the areas which don’t work: be representational.  It’s theatre, it’s more than allowed.

Interestingly, the most compelling photo in the play is of Skip himself: a world-weary Pitman with a hardened strength shot against the sky.   Is it a self-portrait?  Is it, and this would be a nice touch, by apprentice Basel?   Another question left un-answered.

Alison interviews Skip. Photo Chris Herzfeld

The cast is strong.  Pitman carefully traces the downward spiral of coming to grips with re-finding himself in his Australian home, and does his best with the halting dialogue.  In his final recount of Skip’s African life, Pitman’s power and intensity comes to a head.  Here, it is also partnered by the beautiful vulnerability of Falkland; Alison is often abrasive, always having chosen to be independent lest she end up in a relationship like her parents’, Falkland plays the of trying to re-establish herself with the loss of her father and the re-entry of Skip with beautiful evocation.

As the slightly awkward brother Neville, living in the shadow of Skip, Walker is a stand-out amongst the cast.  Neville’s nervous energy and big heart are completely apparent in Walker’s performance, as he is trying to navigate relationships with the breaking down Skip and with his crush Patience.   Excitable, balancing the line between genuine and wanted care and not quite knowing when to let go, and yet peacefully sincere when called to be, this is a powerful role for Walker.  As Neville’s crush, Patience, Ntawumenya is still finding her acting legs, but that is primarily only noticeable through comparison to other cast members.  In Patience, Ntawumenya is a warm and giving performer; Patience a caring character in both her African and Australian lives, and Ntawumenya gives a lovely performance in the quiet paired scenes and in louder monologues and group scenes.

As the only character which never appears in Australian screens, Waylee has a lot to carry as Basel is Skip’s only foil in Africa.  While occasionally playing the role a bit too young (or perhaps Waylee was just cast a bit old), Waylee is strong, and succeeds the most when he is given Pitman to play off, as a teacher, an adversary, and as a friend – it’s win-win.   Much like Ntawunmenya, Waylee is a giving actor and thus is best when he has other actors to give to.

Makhoba’s Augustus is the character least defined by his relationship to the other characters.   As Skip and Neville’s long time friend, Makhoba plays the most grounded of the characters, and his is the only story which truly explores a racially driven attack: this monologue is delivered with great power, spite, fear, and hate for his attacker.

Augustus recounts his South African childhood. Photo Chris Herzfeld

There is much to like about this production: the design is often sensational, performances are captivating, and when the script breaks out of its flimsy structure and oddly paced wording there are some genuine moments of intrigue: I noticed as I wrote the descriptions of the actors, I cared more about their characters when taken out of the context of the production.   I have to wonder if perhaps here the long development period with Riley and director/dramaturge Chris Drummond hasn’t allowed a separation from the piece that perhaps could have been used to cast a more critical eye over the text that it really needs.  Distance can be a powerful thing.

Brink Productions presents Skip Miller’s Hit Songs by Sean Riley.  Director/Dramaturge Chris Drummond, Design by Wendy ToddMusic Direction by Quentin Grant, Filmmaker James Kalisch, Lighting Design by Geoff Cobham, Produced by Kay Jamieson.  With actors Chris Pitman, Assina Ntawumenya, Rory Walker, Mondli Makhoba, Lizzy Falkland and Adolphus Waylee, and musicians Quentin Grant, Jerome Lyons and Lamine Nanky.  At the Odeon Theatre as a part of the Adelaide Fringe, running through March 5th.  More information and tickets.

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