For several years now, the Old Fitz has been one of Sydney’s quirkiest and most exciting theatrical spaces. At the back of Woolloomooloo’s Old Fitzroy Hotel, after a few drinks or a hearty pub meal, audiences descend down a dark staircase into a 58-seat theatre which for years seen some of the city’s finest artists get their foot in the door and practice their craft.
When Tamarama Rock Surfers, the company that called the Old Fitz home, announced they were leaving after 16 years, the local theatre scene started to mourn the loss of a venue that defined what theatre for the community really is. But Sydney Independent Theatre Co (SITCO) quickly came to the rescue and took over residency of the little theatre that could, promising to provide local crowds more thrilling theatrical experiences.
By launching their season with an ensemble piece with seven actors, SITCO is clearly committed to offering opportunities to artists. Based on short stories by Katherine Mansfield and written and adapted for the stage by Gary Abrahams, Something Natural But Very Childish weaves together three stories set in Edwardian England about both the fantasy and reality of being in love.
Abrahams’ script combines an almost existential drama with drawing room comedy in a poetic way. It’s the type of play where the tone shifts and changes suddenly and if not handled with absolute perfection can end up feeling uneven.
That is what’s happened here. In spite of some insightful direction and decent performances, the play falls flat. The best performance comes from Carla Nirella as Mrs Bullen who manages to negotiate the language and her character’s difficult dramatic shifts seamlessly. Margaux Harris is also radiant as Anne, displaying a real gift for comedy.
Designer Rachel Scane’s costumes are fine, evoking early 20th Century England, but her set is less successful. It’s never easy to produce this type of work that demands a level of old-world glamour on the type of budget SITCO works with, but there are ways of creating a cheap set that doesn’t look it.
In the program notes, director and artistic director of SITCO Julie Baz has described the play as something that very much belongs in the early 20th century. She says that the play speaks to current themes, and it certainly does, but you have to wonder why SITCO would choose to launch their residency of the Old Fitz, a venue known for cutting edge, daring works with a play that is so much about then, rather than now. The Old Fitz practically screams at writers and directors: ‘Take a risk!’ but this seems a little too safe.
It was the launch of the ‘New Old Fitz’ and it’s fantastic that the theatre will continue to operate. Unfortunately, it will leave you wishing for the ‘Old Old Fitz’. Here’s hoping the folks at SITCO turn things around. Judging from the season ahead, I think they can.