First published in The Times, Wednesday August 8 2018
Down at the Dump is the forthright title of the Patrick White short story on which this intimate piece by Australia’s Brink Productions is based. Change of name aside, the show remains strikingly faithful to the work of the Nobel laureate. Indeed, the stated aim of Chris Drummond, the company’s artistic director, was to “take on White’s incredible text holus-bolus rather than whittling away at an adaptation”.
This uncompromising and reverential approach has its advantages and drawbacks. The piece, staged in the round, luxuriates in and immerses its audience in White’s sensuous, surprisingly witty prose and sharp insights into the class divides and hypocrisies of small town life in Australia.
Pic: Tim Standing
The rich stink of the Sarsaparilla Dump, where the Whalley family gather scrap to sell, and where two sets of lovers (including the free-spirited title character) assert their passion in the face of rigid social conventions, is evoked in vivid detail. White’s themes are echoed in the varied soundtrack, performed live by the Zephyr Quartet, whose players are stationed among the audience.
Pic: Tim Standing
This coupling of the lyrical writing to the music makes for some moving moments but it is not enough on its own to sustain its audience through 75 minutes. The balance in Drummond’s production between exposition and dramatic action is tipped too much in favour of the former. Too often, the fine cast of four (which includes the Australian stage veterans Paul Blackwell and Geneviève Picot) are called upon to simply narrate great chunks of the story while standing around in the space. Ironically, it is in the rare wordless sequences, as in the scenes of sexual discovery among the heaps of discarded items at the dump, that the play really finds its voice.