Review: Boy with the Rainbow Umbrella by Coleman Grehan

Boy with the Rainbow Umbrella
Written/Directed by Coleman Grehan, Starring Nicholas Prior and Lachlan Smith
Produced by Ruby Newport, Design by Kaylee Gannaway
19 Heath Street, East Brisbane
Shows @ 7:30pm Friday 13th and Saturday 14th

Review by Josh Lyons

Queensland has an issue with a backwards law. Under a house in East Brisbane, two young men weave an intimate tale of how our attitudes towards masculinity gave it plenty of room to grow.

This show interrogates the Homosexual Advance Defense strategy, which stipulates that under Queensland (and South Australian) law, Homosexual advances constitute provocation warranting the reduction of a murder charge to manslaughter. It sounds complex, because law, but really it’s very simple, and the two actors in the show quickly and effectively fill us in on the details to make way for the nitty-gritty, an intimate conversation about the tangible effects of our unhealthy views of masculinity.

Pre-show conversation happens in the garage, and at the shows commencing the actors come out to deliver a duologue about the nature of the show. They touch on themes, introduce the characters (simply with “One is gay, and one is not”) clarify that “Promenade Theatre” may have been an overstatement, and deliver some solid choreographed humour. It’s a very strong start to the show, and has us eagerly engage in the journey, following the actors into a different room for the remainder of the show.

This is where the rest of the action occurs. Set against a detailed black and white room, we first meet Adrian (Lachlan Smith). This is his room. His mattress rests unceremoniously on the floor with his crumpled tissues, and his straight (in more ways than one) demeanour is reflected in the monochrome of the walls, props, costumes and furnishings. Soon a young man, introduced only as J (Nicholas Prior) enters. Adrian recognises him, we won’t learn why for some time, but the show continues by exploring their conversations about themselves, their sexualities, and how the world views them. J is gay, a clean-freak, feminine and out-going. Adrian is straight, slobbish, manly and reserved. This alone is enough to cause our first tensions, which drive us through to discoveries about the boy’s relationships, with family, friends, relationships and, most importantly, each other.

This show walks an interesting line. On the surface it would seem to be a play about the issues surrounding the Homosexual Advance Defense Strategy, and center primarily on that. But no-one in the room to see this play is on the other side of that issue, which makes it a hardly nuanced exploration. Accordingly, Grehan has decided to tackle the much more complex issue of Australian perceptions of masculinity, and use it as a launching point for a personal story about the issue. It was Daniel Evans who first spoke the phrase “The universal is in the personal” to me, and it’s something that’s informed my practice ever since. And these guys absolutely nailed it. They brought us through to the universal of the issue via the intimate and personal tale of these two young men, and that is highly commendable.

This brings us to our two performers, Prior and Smith. Their work was mostly very good. They took the story extremely seriously, and had obviously given a lot of thought to the complex characters that they brought before us. It was somewhat upsetting then, to see the best moment of the play, in which the tensions between the boys rise massively and their confrontation turns to yelling, filled with an emotional connection that they hadn’t found for much of the remainder of the show. Not to say that their work elsewhere in the play wasn’t good, simply that their connection and responsiveness seemed to heighten in that moment in a way that we hadn’t seen before then, and didn’t after. Anger is often an easy emotion to conjure, especially for young men, but it would have been great to see the same energy present throughout the entirety of the show.

The space was curious. As a particularly large person, I tend to struggle with smaller spaces, and being asked to stand for a show. This led to me often feeling as though I was in the way of the performance, despite effectively being wedged into a corner. Aside from the squeamishness of larger patrons however, the space was extremely effective for allowing the intimacy that the play thrives on. There were times where the performers were literally inches from us, we were hit by thrown props (harmlessly) and this really brought us into the world. The design was symbolic of the very straight Adrian, and was in stark contrast of the only coloured prop of the show, the rainbow umbrella. The combination of this juxtaposition and inferred meanings of rainbows in relation to sexuality excellently provided a sense of the story that was to be told, and Gannaway’s attention to detail with this was extremely impressive. My personal favourite item of set was a cactus that had been painted white in a black pot, but I digress.

At its core this show seems to be about an issue, and it tackles it with gusto while delivering the much more accessible tale alongside. If you’re fascinated by masculinity, sexuality, law, or just seeing theatre that is quintessentially Brisbane, then this show will be a magnificent addition to your Anywhere Festival experience.
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