Reviewed July 10, 2009
I am not a fan of Tim Finn’s music – I’m not not a fan, I just never really explored it. That said, his songs are probably the best thing about Sydney Theatre Company’s “supernatural opera” Poor Boy. Playwright Matt Cameron and Finn collaborated to create the script, which incorporates an otherworldly storyline with Finn’s songs. It’s hard to know where the songs influenced storyline or the story influenced choice of songs – but I’m not sure the two gelled together entirely.
After a fainting spell on his seventh birthday, seven-year-old Jem Glass appears to undergo a transformation, and assumes the identity of a middle aged man, Daniel (Matt Newton), who died seven years ago. He finds his way home to Danny’s family on the other side of town, where his appearance opens old wounds: a mother grieving for her son, a widow grieving for her husband, and a brother who likes his brother more dead than when he was alive.
The play is structured around a series of pairs – Jem, and the ghost of the man who died; the two mothers; each family’s “other” sibling, the one who feels sidelined.
Lyrics like My Love Is Alien / I picked her up by chance/ she speaks to me /with ultra-high frequencies/ Radio band of gold/ Gonna listen til I grow old… [from the titular Split Enz song] are pretty enough, but don’t necessarily have much to do with the story – you begin to suspect that these lyrics are the reason that Jem thinks he hears a man’s voice in the radio, and not the other way around.
Similarly, I felt it was falsely profound to have Danny’s widow Clair (Abi Tucker) appear on stage for the first time in a translucent nightdress to the strains of “Ghost Girl” (also Split Enz).
Utter despair has a fatal attraction/
When clothed in a shimmering gown/
But don’t take up where her assassin left off/
Or you’ll be let down by the ghost girl.
I guess at the end of the day I am just not sure that lyrics and songs should dictate narrative, and I don’t think they necessarily provide enough meat for this story.
The program says “Poor Boy asks big questions about humanity and our place in the universe. What is a soul and if we have one, who owns it? What do we believe in? What is faith and how do we know when it is misplaced?” It certainly does – but I’m not sure I care much about the answers.
It’s a shame, because the music is good, the band is tight, and some of the performances – especially Sara Gleeson as Jem’s precocious and promiscuous fairy-punk sister, and Matt Dyktynski as Danny’s bitter elder brother – are great. Even the singing is pretty good!