Stage Door Review 2024


Monday, January 29, 2024



by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Rob Kempson

ARC, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

January 27-February 11, 2024

Alfie: “She never mastered that chameleonic thing”

ARC is presenting the Canadian premiere of Rockabye by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith. The focus is so different between the two acts of this 2009 play that it feels less like a two-act play than a double-bill of two plays that happen to feature the same characters. The first act is a rather routine satire of rock stars, journalists and managers. The second act becomes a fascinating debate about the ethics of rich White people adopting Black African children. The cast do what they can to make Murray-Smith’s less-than-witty dialogue come alive in Act 1, but in Act 2 with topics of substance to argue, they become inspired and the dialogue finally starts to spark.

Act 1 of the play focusses on Sidney Jones, a rock star, who had a number one hit with her album “Supernova” in the mid-1980s. It’s now 2009 and Sidney has had no big hit since then. She has recorded a new album which she and her manager Alfie hope to market as her comeback album. Alfie tells people that Sidney has always had a big following in Germany and especially in Poland. She is hoping that the new album makes her a star in the UK again.

Meanwhile, Sidney is also hoping to adopt a child she met on a trip to Africa. Sidney claims that when she held the child in the orphanage she felt an immediate connection with her. A woman from Africa, Layla, is arranging the adoption but has to assess whether Sidney, given her lifestyle, will be a suitable mother. Sidney’s hopes lie completely in Layla’s hands.

Sidney and Alfie do not want the subject of the adoption to come up before the album release or before Sidney’s important interview with the influential journalist Tobias Beresford because Sidney and Alfie want the focus to remain solely on the album and Sidney’s comeback. They are heartened that Tobias actually likes the album and thinks it is a major breakthrough for the former star.

The play is clearly inspired by the pop singer Madonna’s adoption of an orphan in Malawi in 2008 in which she and then husband Guy Ritchie asked the court to waive the 18-month residency requirement for prospective adoptive parents. Murray-Smith could not know in 2009 that Madonna would go on to adopt three more Malawian orphans and fund the first pediatric surgery and intensive care centre in Malawi.

The questions in Act 2 about the ethics of White people adopting Black orphans would be the same even if Murray-Jones had portrayed Sidney as a successful singer who, like Madonna, has had hits from the 1980s into the 2000s. One assumes that Murray-Smith characterizes Sidney as an-all-but-washed-up star in order to make her plea for a child more sympathetic. The problem is that Murray-Smith has already shown Sidney demand that her PA get her only Peruvian grown wheat germ and then insist that she ensure her costume designer get fabric from Uzbekistan to make a button for an outfit she will be wearing. This makes Sidney’s demand for a specific African orphan look just as petty and imperious.

In Act 2 Murray-Smith makes a sudden turn from satire to seriousness. She drops the comeback story that was so dominant in Act 1 and concentrates entirely on the adoption issue. Here Murray-Smith generates an almost Shavian debate about the rights and wrongs of interracial adoption wherein she presents the extreme version of both sides with equal force. Tobias argues that White people shouldn’t congratulate themselves for helping “Africa” when the adopt an Africa child. Taking a child out of its culture is to cause it to lose an essential part of its identity. Layla argues that adopting an African child is saving it from succumbing to disease and death. Tobias says that it would be better for the child to die.

Murray-Smith is intent that whether Layla does or does not approve Sidney’s application to adopt remains unresolved. So, too, is the debate about interracial adoption. Murray-Smith leaves us in the air with an unsatisfactory conclusion.

The cast directed by Rob Kempson go all out in trying to put this flawed play over. Kempson keeps the scenes rolling by at a rapid pace so that we don’t quite notice how long the play is. The difficulty in Murray-Smith’s strategy of beginning the play with satire and presenting all the characters as well-worn caricatures is that we in no way care the slightest about any of them. Sidney is potentially a great role for a mature female actor. Murray-Smith shows the character at the height of irritable self-centredness and takes her all the way down to state of ignominious begging by the end.

Deborah Drakeford has the full measure of the part. She helps soften Murray-Smith’s initial portrait of Sidney as an ultra-demanding star by hinting that genuine fear of failure underlies Sidney’s hope for a comeback and for a child. She is great at showing Sidney caught off guard and struggling to regain poise under Tobias’s unexpected questions in his key interview with her. It’s a pity Murray-Smith doesn’t allow Sidney a speech explaining in greater detail why a child is so important to her since it seems that it is not really having a child from Africa that is so important but having any child at all.

As Alfie, Sergio Di Zio does a fine job of portraying a business manager too accustomed to playing unwilling therapist to his clients. Di Zio mines the comedy in Alfie’s exasperation and his having to say whatever he has to say to keep his clients calm and tractable. Constantly, though, we wish Murray-Smith had made his dialogue shaper and wittier.

Though minor characters in Act 1, Tobias and Layla become central figures in Act 2. Christopher Allen as Tobias and Shauna Thompson as Layla give the most impressive performances of the evening. Though the near-instant blooming of a relationship between the two seems more a contrivance of plot than a reflection of the characters as we’ve come to know them, Allen and Thompson generation such intellectual and physical tension together that we only notice Murray-Smith’s artifice in retrospect. They carry out the debate about interracial adoption, which turns out to be the play’s main theme, with lively naturalness. The two score intellectual points while also seeming to dig more deeply into each other’s psyche.

The comic parallel to Sidney is her PA Julia well played by Julie Lumsden. Lumsden finds comedy in Julia’s struggle to be unflappable in the face of her employer’s constant whims and demands. The tension of this struggle she seems to take out on Sidney’s toy boy Joylon, played with amusing quirkiness and a near-impenetrable Northern accent by Nabil Traboulsi. Kyra Harper’s talents are wasted in the underwritten role of Sidney’s housekeeper Esme, whose sole function is to vent her opinion to Julia that lesbians should not bring up children. In a better play an author could have made much more of the question of the right families for children, whether same-sex parents or parents of a different race from their child.

ARC has the admirable mandate of bringing Toronto plays never performed here before. In so doing it has helped expand the horizons of Toronto’s theatre-goers and deparochialize Canadians’ conceptions of what theatre is about. Joanna Murray-Smith is currently Australia’s most performed playwright outside Australia. We could certainly stand to see her best-known plays like Honour (1995), Bombshells (2001) or The Female of the Species (2006). Rockabye does not show her at her best, but, given the fire kindled in the play’s second act, it does make us want to know this author better.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Deborah Drakeford as Sidney and Christopher Allen as Tobias; Deborah Drakeford as Sidney with Sergio Di Zio left and Nabil Traboulsi right; Christopher Allen as Tobias and Shauna Thompson as Layla. © 2024 Sam Moffatt.

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