Review: Toy Symphony (Ad Astra)

Gregory J Wilken as Roland Henning in Toy Symphony, photographed by Christopher Sharman

Content note: This production contains coarse language, adult themes, and depictions of drug use

Ad Astra present Michael Gow’s award-winning play Toy Symphony, directed by Michelle Carey, a two-act drama that dives into memory and contemplates the nature and commodification of creativity.

Toy Symphony follows Roland Henning, a narcissistic playwright suffering from writers block, as he revisits his past and attempts to find the cause. As a child with morbid fascinations and an unusual ‘gift’ for bringing historical figures to life, Roland found solace in writing from a young age – but now, as a middle-aged man and a commercial success, he feels that his creativity has abandoned him. Prompted by a concerned friend to see a psychologist, Roland attempts to unpack his past in order to understand the loss of his creative drive. When this fails, he returns to his drug habit and deep-seated cynicism as he struggles with the grief of losing his parents and his ongoing creative drought.

Caitlin Hill and Gregory J Wilken in Toy Symphony, photographed by Christopher Sharman

The elements of magic realism included in this play were interesting – whereas any elements of magic onstage are usually accepted in the world of the play, the other characters were shocked and bewildered by Roland’s ‘gift’. However, the two Acts felt somewhat disjointed (an issue of the story arc itself, not of the production) as the storytelling and self-reflection structure of the therapist’s office fell away after the interval. In addition, the script contained details that crowded the main story – the bushfires, for example, may have been a timely reference when the play premiered in 2008 but now add little to the work.

The creative staging of Toy Symphony included multiple entry and exit points, interesting divisions of space, and piles of suitcases emphasising the emotional baggage hauled around throughout the play. The walls of the black box Ad Astra theatre were covered in chalk writing, and this was added to throughout the production as Mrs Walkham delivered her lessons, including a fairly extensive history of Como and the Sutherland Shire. A number of props brought the primary school classroom to life – a chalkboard, overhead projector, and wall map were used particularly in the history lesson.

Gregory J Wilken as Roland Henning in Toy Symphony, photographed by Christopher Sharman

Lighting design and tech by B’Elanna Hill created separation between Roland’s memories and the present day, especially the ‘visits’ from historical figures, and also added texture to dramatic scenes such as the bushfire. This was supported by sound and technical design by Theo Bourgoin, including loud scribbling that marked Roland’s introduction to writing as a creative outlet and musical transitions between scenes. Costume design by Eleonora Ginardi assisted in maintaining distinct characters, especially as most actors took on multiple roles throughout the performance.

Lachlan Stuart as Lawyer (role shared with Jonathan Weir) and Gregory J Wilken as Roland Henning in Toy Symphony, photographed by Christopher Sharman

Many of the characters in Toy Symphony were larger than life, exaggerated in Roland’s memory, and the cast used melodramatic characterisations to convey this. The cast demonstrated good comedic timing, and commitment to their varied roles, from playful schoolchildren to doctors and drug dealers. Greg Scurr and Sam Webb delivered standout performances in terms of physical comedy, and the energy with which Webb threw himself into each character consistently drew the eye onstage. Jonathan Weir brought a vulnerable edge to the role of Daniel, Caitlin Hill was soft-spoken and grounded as Nina the psychologist, and Bernadette Pryde was perfectly endearing as Roland’s favourite teacher, Mrs Walkham.

Gregory J Wilken as Roland Henning in Toy Symphony, photographed by Christopher Sharman

In addition to producing Toy Symphony, Gregory J Wilken delivered an impressive performance as Roland Henning. Onstage for every scene, including a number of lengthy monologues, Wilken’s characterisation included strong enunciation and a number of physical mannerisms which evolved from Roland’s childhood into his adult life. Roland is difficult to like, but Wilken’s performance made it possible to sympathise with him and Toy Symphony’s final scene suggested the possibility of redemption; Roland is seeking to make amends, his ‘gift’ has returned, and he is using it to connect with others rather than to manipulate them.

Ad Astra’s production of Toy Symphony combines inventive staging and committed performances to share a story across space and time with a cast of larger-than-life characters, exploring the blurred lines between reality, fiction, and memory.

Toy Symphony will play at the Ad Astra Theatre in Fortitude Valley from 21 April – 14 May 2022.

Click here for ticketing and further information

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