Thursday 3 July 2014

Indie Theatres of Melbourne 2: La Mama

Of all the independent theatre venues in Melbourne, La Mama is the most famous. It's certainly proved to be the one with the most staying power.

This small Carlton theatre was founded within a former underwear factory in 1967 by Betty Burstall, who named it in tribute to the experimental theatre La MaMa in New York.

It was a godsend to emerging Australian playwrights, who had limited opportunities to stage their new plays. It helped kickstart David Williamson's stellar career; and Jack Hibberd's most successful play, Dimboola, was first staged at La Mama in 1969.

Over the years La Mama has maintained its position as the crucible of Melbourne theatre - a tiny but vibrant space where new works can be aired, with new actors and directors honing their craft in front of a live audience just off the busy Lygon Street restaurant strip.

Last week I paid my latest visit to La Mama, in the company of a uni student who was visiting from Perth and was interested in seeing some local theatre.

The production was titled The Art of Fucking, by Phoebe Anne Taylor. A provocative title for a play about twentysomethings struggling with the issues of 21st century youth, judging from the blurb on the website.

I wasn't entirely confident, I must admit, as we huddled around the open fire warming the courtyard of the theatre. La Mama does curate the plays staged in its premises, but that doesn't mean you'll always be happy with the results.

As it turned out, the production was very good.

It started slowly, with a group of friends sitting around a living room, unable to decide what to do with their evening and grappling with various mundane issues.

Then another character entered, freshly returned from an extended overseas journey and full of all the insights and personal growth she'd gained. In short, annoying but funny (to us).

It was at this point we realised that something dramatic had happened a year before - the death of a mutual friend, the catalyst for this international travel and for the unresolved tension within the group.

Two more acts followed, each set earlier than the first. First, the deceased woman revealed her connection with the group. Then, in scenes set at a party, we discovered the brutal consequences of her friendship with the young man within the household (and it wasn't what we might have expected).

As always with new work, there were a few rough edges here and there, and the actors seemed a little unfocused at the start. But the strength of the script shone through, and the ensemble grew more confident in their roles as the story unfolded.

At the end we were gripped by the revelations which came tumbling out messily at the party, with alcohol flowing and the characters' speech unguarded.

And as always at La Mama, the drama was aided by the necessary intimacy of the interior; with only 30 seats or so available to the audience, and the actors close enough to reach out and touch.

The Art of Fucking continues to 6 July 2014 at La Mama; find details and make bookings by clicking here.

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