St Jude's Players
St Jude's Hall (Grundy Hall)
Until 20 Nov 2021

Review by Holden Ward

St Jude’s Players have a long history of producing high quality productions, and their latest offering is no exception.

“The Pig Iron People” was the first play penned by well-known comedic broadcaster, writer and satirist, John Doyle (aka Rampaging Roy Slaven), and premiered in Sydney, 2008. As Doyle is lesser known as a playwright, his debut script is a wonderful revelation: a moving, gritty drama, laced with an authentically Australian humour.

The play takes us to “Liberal Street”, an inner Sydney cul-de-sac on Election Night – March 2, 1996. A troubled young writer, Nick moves into the street and encounters his neighbours who are from a generation “born in the 30s, whose world views were formed in the 50s”, and a political mindset very different to his own. However, there is no judgementalism here, only a clearly nuanced understanding of the human condition. The play’s seven characters are well written, each with their own flaws, and very relatable. We can all identify with the youthful yearning of Nick and April, the older characters’ regrets of unfulfilled dreams, and we have all known at least one Kurt, a European immigrant with fixed conservative views, providing unsolicited, judgemental advice to those in his path: “get out of the gutter and get a job!”

Director Lesley Reed has an experienced and talented cast to work with here. There were no standout performers, as all the actors were consistently brilliant, additionally revealing their accomplished singing talents when required.

From the start, the superb set was a striking visual element, cleverly designed and solidly constructed by Don Oakley and Eleni Taylor, further enhanced by Leigh Wheatley’s lighting design and operation. The inner-city cul-de-sac was portrayed using four individual buildings, one of which served as Kurt’s fortress and another structure seamlessly doubled as an indoor space for Nick’s halfway house. The building facades used an effective white on black schematic, which worked well as a neutral backdrop for the streetlamp, the 3D-coloured cardboard cut outs of the wheelie bins, and most impressive of all, the S Series Chrysler Valiant. The black and white terraced housing design perhaps also symbolised the binary world views of its older inhabitants, and their longing for the comfort of simpler times past.

The flawless elements of the set, production team, talented cast and tight direction, allowed for the audience to get absorbed in the drama, to remember and reflect without any unnecessary distractions. The thin public veneer of the characters was soon peeled off to reveal glimpses of darker realities, including domestic violence, sexual assault, tragic personal loss, fear of gun law reform, animal cruelty, and shameful secrets. The actors were skilful in their emotional execution of these themes, allowing the audience to appropriately express disgust and empathy in equal measure.

The fourth wall was nicely broken in this production, primarily through Nick’s intermittent narration to the audience and notably, the gentle but spontaneous singalong from the mostly older audience was incredibly moving: “When I grow too old to dream, that kiss will live in my heart….”.

“The Pig Iron People” is presented as both a “satire and memory play”, and many humorous memories were evoked: the parodies of the commercial jingles from the 80s and 90s, and Jack’s reminiscence of the time he cooked pork for the Navy Admiral (through his own badly written play!) were noteworthy highlights.

Whilst watching this production, I also found myself remembering and reflecting on many things. I recalled going to a party on the night of the 1996 Election, like Nick’s character, and the strong sense of disappointment amongst my university peers that “today the country has decided to return to the past”. “The Pig Iron People” reminds us that our political inclinations can be guided by a range of factors, not least of which is the reality of our own lived experiences, as well as how we may feel about the bin collection and parking in our street….as the saying goes: all politics is local.

The entire cast and production team at St Jude’s Players are to be commended for their enduring commitment throughout pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, which have beset most theatre companies over the past two years. Remarkably, “The Pig Iron People” was chosen by St Jude’s a few years ago, and consequently, this “labour of love” for Director Lesley Reed, was an exceptional production well worth the wait!