REVIEW: Once in Royal David’s City

Jason Klarwein was dynamic as Will Drummond, despite regular interludes that bordered on dramaturgy lectures. 
Queensland Theatre Company, co-presenting with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company, brings the work of former Artistic Director Michael Gow to the QPAC Playhouse. Once in Royal David’s City is a Christmas story of a different kind, dealing with memory, family, and the loss of a loved one. 

It was somewhat jarring to enter the auditorium to the strains of Christmas carols in April, but by the time the performance was over I was glad that we had not seen it in the festive season. Not exactly a feel-good romp, the play follows playwright Will Drummond (Jason Klarwein) as he prepares to spend Christmas on the beach with his recently-widowed mother Jeannie (Penny Everingham). However, when she falls ill and is diagnosed with untreatable pancreatic cancer the traditional Christmas regime goes out the window and Will struggles to come to terms with the loss of his mother, as well as his identity as a son and an artist. 

A small but incredibly talented ensemble comprised the rest of the cast – Adam Booth as the doctor working over Christmas; Emma Jackson as Jess, the teacher who tries to coax Will into giving a guest lecture to her class about German playwright Berthold Brecht; Toni Scanlan as Gail, a regular visitor who is keeping her own vigil at the hospital; Steve Turner as Bill, Will’s late father, and eccentric preacher Wally; Kaye Stevenson as long-time family friend Molly; and Adam Sollis as skateboard-riding boy in the park with whom Will swaps Christmas woes. An array of characters, all performed with genuine passion and emotion.    


The simple, touching story of Will coming to terms with his mother’s impending death occasionally becomes lost among the more ‘academic’ aspects of the play – interwoven pantomime and almost-lectures about Marxism and the dramatic theory of Brecht. Gow handles grief gently and with humour, because of course sorrow does not exist in a vacuum. The loss of a parent is something we will all face at some point – but as much as this draws us to sympathise with the character, we are held at arm’s length by the academic analysis of his very human emotions. 


As someone who has not studied Brecht and has only a basic knowledge of Karl Marx’s manifesto, I kept feeling as though I was missing something – some joke that was just out of reach because I was not well-versed enough in the theories behind the production. This, more than any applied Brechtian theory, was the ‘alienation effect’ in this performance. Nonetheless, it was emotionally stirring and beautifully executed by a stellar cast.

Queensland Theatre Company will be performing Once in Royal David’s City at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC, until May 14. Tickets and more info are here


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