March into the archives : In the Heart of Our Past review


In the Heart of Our Past
A Drive-in Theatre Experience at Narrandera Railway Station
11.30am Saturday 15 March 2014

Presented by The CAD Factory, Western Riverina Arts and Spirit FM
Written by Kieran Carroll
Based on a concept by Vic McEwan
Directed by Kieran Carroll and Vic McEwan
Performed by Paul Mercuri and Lee McClenaghan and the Narrandera Drive-in Theatre Choir
Music by Fiona Caldracevic
Administration by Sarah McEwan
Live sound by Edmondo Ammendola

Narrandera is one of the oldest towns in the western Riverina, having grown at a crossing of the Murrumbidgee River in the 1860s. The weekend is the 20th John O’Brien Festival and celebrates the poetry of Father Patrick Hartigan, famous for characterising pessimistic farmers in the lines ““we’ll all be roomed,” said Hanrahan, “before the year is out.””

Arriving at the railway station for the first of The CAD Factory’s four performances of In the Heart of our Past, I discover the radio in my car doesn’t work. As the play will be broadcast into vehicles while we watch from the carpark, I’m helped to find another seat for the show. My companions are Jess, Sarah, Claire and Frankie the brown labrador, who’s excited to see theatre for the first time according to a Facebook update on the event’s page.

A group in historical costume await outside the station as a tall figure in a baseball cap speaks into one of the microphones set up in front of them. It’s Kieran Carroll, who wrote the three short plays we’re about to see and hear during a 2012 residency with The CAD Factory. The group in costume begin singing as Kieran saunters away. They’re a chorus joining together in choruses, setting a scene that’s timeless and nostalgic and harking back to radio plays.

Actor Lee McClenaghan strides forward and introduces herself as Shirley Bliss, 20-year old dressmaker and winner of Miss Australia in 1954. She’s off to California to compete in the Miss Universe competition, farewelling well-wishers and then fielding questions from a series of journalists all played with varying accents by a mercurous Paul Mercuri. As Bliss arrives in the US, Mercuri transforms into a sleaze, possibly a film producer.

There are a few technical issues with McClenaghan’s wireless microphone cutting out at few points. I joke to my new friends that it sounds though cuss words were censored from the broadcast. Soon Bliss returns to Narrandera, heralded by the real squeal of a real train on the tracks beyond the station. Added atmosphere and apparently unscripted.

A musical interlude as the chorus harmonise before Mercuri and McClenaghan return in 1909 as Dr Harold and Gwen Lethbridge, who would treat Narrandera for over 35 years. The doctor expresses a desire to collect information on indigenous culture as well as snakes and wildlife. He recounts an old Aboriginal saying they “live in the land, not on it” and expresses a desire to eradicate poverty.

The chorus sing again, signalling the shift to the final act. It’s a beautiful song with the refrain “I shall pass” and lines include “any good that I can do, let me do it now”. The singers are led by Fiona Caldarevic, a local musician who — like The CAD Factory — has contributed to the cultural fabric of Narrandera in recent years.

Mercuri returns, bent over a walking stick and introducing himself as a 115-year old who was nicknamed ‘Drought and Rain’ by the Hanrahan of John O’Brien’s poem on account of association with climactic climate conditions.

“That mob in Narrandera will be blaming me for invading Poland,” says Mr Rain as he recounts leaving town ahead of bumper wheat crops. He finds a wife named Summer and jokes “you heard right, I married the hottest season.” After an affair with an April May, Summer leaves for Hobart and sets the scene for a joke about how Summer was never known in Tasmania. Like the rest of the show, it’s lighthearted material and delivered with aplomb.

The technical wizardry of broadcasting sound to a car-based audience evokes both radio plays and drive-ins of previous decades. Listening to comments from Jess, Sarah and Claire made me appreciate that theatre and movies benefit from being enjoyed in an audience. They delighted in aspects that are lost on me, like the performance of a girl in the chorus and the hat of woman. Meanwhile Frankie has excitedly spied a dog in the house behind the station car park.

Country towns often seem stuck in the past, trying to market history to passing cars in an age of innovation. So The CAD Factory bring a refreshing perspective to local events, interpreting stories into new formats with artistry. It enriches through reflection and inspires through fresh representation.