When reviewing a complex play such as Once in Royal David’s City, it’s easiest for me to use the title as a guide. After all, a title is the hatch tag for the content.

ORDC takes place not in Royal David’s City—darn that didn’t help. But in Australia, Byron Bay, mostly a hospital room at Christmas. The cycle of life is about to complete—a son (Will) witnesses his mother (Jeannie) dying. The play bounces back in time and place—from an airport arrival to a bygone Bondi Beach Xmas, TV viewing, a play rehearsal, a classroom lecture. It is an extended montage of Will (a middle-aged dramaturg/director) and his relationship with his mother, Jeannie. Filtered through his life’s success and failures. For those of a certain age, me, this play seems intensely relevant and personal. If I saw this when I was 20, I would have feigned appreciating it. Today it’s difficult to watch.

Take, for instance, Bondi Beach Xmas mid-1970s (?). Jeannie is frantic because she can’t find Will; her recollection is pure Australia-Xmas-Day-At-The-Beach—you can smell the coconut oil. She’s distraught—until steered to the Bondi Surf Life Saver’s hut where Will is enjoying a paddle pop (I’ll bet it’s chocolate) transfixed by the semi-naked warm male flesh. He couldn’t be happier and neither could she—obviously for different reasons. When she takes him away he cries, but not with relief (as Jeannie recalls) but with frustration (Will’s recollection).

How many of us share similarly discordant family memories?

Underwriting the play is its playness. There are plenty of in-ish jokes about plays; Pygmalion’s reincarnation as My Fair Lady. A community theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest becomes a vehicle for aged-related memory issues. Will’s memories focus on his work, theatrical theory becomes his personal philosophy. Brecht is central—epic theatre is explicated and sporadically re-enacted (to my delight; all I can say is Carols by Candlelight and Cambridge Choir), and Will corrects conceptions about the ‘alienation’ effect; to school children by design but pretty much the audience is implicated. Yep, never will the audience misunderstand alienation. It was a bit preachy.

Speaking of preachy—’religion’ gets a bit of a nod. Obviously Christianity lurks at the heart of the play (the title remember); and religion reigns in hospital rooms. In ORDC Wally, one of Jeannie’s visitors, addresses Australia’s unease with religion; Will rejects Wally until his non-denominational (acceptable Marxist?) stance offers Will something in a time when anything eases the pain.

And of course when you have religion and Brecht, politics lurks. The plays careens from working and middle class through right and left wing—

we have private school children opinions, field workers actions, hammer and sickle iconography, politically correct and incorrect reactions, young and old responses.

Man—it’s Australia on stage. Uncomfortable and confusing—I’m hoping there’s a phd student out there willing to tackle the complexities that were tossed onstage and not resolved. Hey, remember, the audience is supposed to leave with its collection political unconscious raised. Yep, ORDC is as complex as a nativity scene.

In all, it’s easier to see the play than to explain it. It’s short but/and dense. A veritable thicket of emotional possibilities. One of the few plays to motivate me to standing ovation. Buy a ticket, take your mum or dad.

Now to the more ‘prosaic’ elements (for me, the easy stuff)—the acting is superb. Jason Klarwein just gets better and better; Emma Jackson—Carols by Candlelight is calling. Adam Booth, Penny Everingham (Jeannie), Toni Scanlan, Adam Sollis, Kay Stevenson, Steve Turner are excellent. The set design is effective. Sam Strong, congrats on a memorable QTC debut. Honestly, this play couldn’t be better.

Finally, Michael Gow—thanks for the timely reminder that life isn’t eternal.

Once in Royal David’s City
QTC Playhouse
22nd April – 14 May