David Williamson is Australia's most commercially successful playwright. It's not a debating point, it's a clear and established fact that, for over four decades, he's produced a massive stack of work (this year sees his 45th and 46th hitting the stages) and is still writing at a prodigious pace (in the last decade, he's had 13 different new plays produced), plus his back-catalogue is regularly revived.
For all that, he doesn't get a heap of respect. Critics tend to get sniffy about his work, and it's true, he tends to write about largely prosperous, white Australians dealing with the personal dilemmas that come with being prosperous and white - but, then again, people without money have never been a particularly big audience for theatre, and I don't necessarily see a lot wrong with engaging your audience on their own territory.
And while "Don Parties On" is the first Williamson play that's a direct sequel (unless you count the latter two Jack Manning plays as sequels), inevitably the themes have been visited before - the rituals of masculine friendship as the line between friend and rival blurs, the strained marriages, the generation gap as boomers are confronted with their children's differing values (and in this one, their grown grandchildren), and the disappointments with the state of the world they're in.
Aarne Neeme's production of "Don Parties On" captures a great deal of this - the sadness as well as the all-too-familiar comedy, of broken dreams and almost-friendly-rivalries, of the ways old friendships can be the things that hurt and support you most, in just about equal measure. It's not altogether perfect - a couple of instances of the casting and a couple of instances of the writing let it down - but when it's a play about people, it's affecting and funny and wise and true.
For the casting, let's start with the women, who are the standouts here. Judi Crane can do withering looks and commanding voices as well as anybody, and gets to unleash them here - but she also gets a chance to be gentle, soulful, wise and true. Helen Vaughan Roberts, similarly, has played the holy terror repeatedly, but this is the first time she's really been heartbreakingly, vulnerably broken (in my "Lost in Yonkers" review, I complained I was denied ten extra seconds to really feel her pain ... this time, I felt it). Liz St Clair Long does a great line in resigned acceptance of her husband's foibles, rolling her eyes at his daggy dancing delightfully. Isha Menon is new to me but owns the stage well, opinionated, strong-minded and, again, able to let her heart show where it counts. Anne Mewburn-Gray is a little trapped by her role - the character begins in a high key and only goes higher - there's probably no way of not playing this character unhinged, strained, and
desperate for attention, and that's what she gives it.
The men are generally less successful - Pat Gallagher's Mal is a notable exception here, he's every bit the braggart philosopher with a chip on his shoulder the part requires, and he's hilariously unconsicous of how incredibly tactless he frequently is. Sam Hannan-Morrow also delivers a good line in angst and befuddlement as his life increasingly spirals out of control. Peter Robinson's Don has the height of a good David Williamson surrogate and is good at the gormlessness and vacancy, but he seems to get a little lost in the more politically meaty bits of the play. Len Power's Cooley, similarly, is frequently funny and dances delightfully dorkily, but he's a little too much inwardly the gentle soul to be a convincing lothario, former or otherwise.
This isn't an all-time great new play by Williamson, but it's an entertaining evening with heart, soul and comedy, and is definitely worth catching.