Sentinel Chickens

This performance tackles the misplaced patriotism, anti-intellectualism, male chauvinism and homophobia of our populist pollies.
Sentinel Chickens

I didn’t know this before, but it seems that the Australian government places caged chickens along the northern borders of Australia to act as sentinels against foreign diseases entering the country, or taking hold from within, like canaries in a coal mine.

Tony Robertson’s new play takes this obscure fact as the starting point for an exploration of our nation’s big new bigotry, which, as we know, often masquerades as patriotism and concern for border protection. The canaries in this case are a security guard, Dave, and his young offsider, Jeremy. They work for a security firm, exerting constant vigilance against the ‘towel heads’ and ‘bucket heads’ who attempt to enter their domain without the proper procedures. Sound familiar? Dave goes even further looking also for the enemy within - his very own fifth column comprising homosexuals, feminists, and university-educated intellectuals.

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In this satire, the domain is not our wide brown land. It is the Telstra Tower, and the ‘bucket heads’ are the despised and feared bicycle couriers who arrive on flimsy bikes and insist on entering the domain via the front door instead of going round the back where they can be properly processed. Dave is determined to ‘Stop the Bikes!’ He is also determined to train Jeremy, his young offsider, to carry out the proper procedures as laid down in the security firm’s manual. But, in spite of initial appearances, Jeremy is not totally compliant. His is a different generation with a different mind-set.

Robertson’s play is full of laughs and surprises, most of them at the expense of Dave, whose mid-century attitudes are nicely picked up in the action-film music by sound designer, Trish Molloy, while his cut-and-dried views are symbolically picked up in the stark black-and-white costumes, and the black-and-white set with its diagonal lines and chequerboard floor.

This is the second set design by Simone Tesorieri & Simona Consentini this year for JUTE. For them, ‘less is more’, and the principle works well again in this play. Lighting designer, Daniel Anderson, provides a brightly-lit stage that symbolically shines a clear light on to Dave’s paranoia and the lack of subtlety in the tirades that he inflicts on his co-players and the audience.

Averil Duck has a good feel for the comic elements in the play and has worked effectively with her cast to bring them to the fore. She has cajoled them to produce every bit of humour they are capable of, and given them freedom to develop their characters in accord with their enormous talents. Occasionally, and especially at the end of the play, the satire could have been a little more pointed, but that is as much the province of the playwright as it is of the director. To be precise here, the ending of the play makes a political point that escaped me and my companion until we heard a few chuckles from other members of the audience. The clincher moment came and went in a flash – and it shouldn’t have.

The acting is superb. Tom Gardiner brings to his role something of the old, case-hardened cop in David Williamson’s The Removalists. His every movement is aggressive. The neck-jutting, feet-apart, belly-forward stance he adopts in dealing with anyone who is agin him (and that sometimes includes Jeremy) is typical. Yet he has a soft side too, which Gardiner allows to emerge briefly. In the end we feel sorry for him. His world, like the WWII diggers he admires so much, has passed into history.

Chris White, as Jeremy, is a huge contrast to Gardiner. His ingenuous comments and his almost sycophantic response to his mentor in the first act actually conceal the mind-set of a very modern young man. White has a fluidity of movement on stage along with a broad range of physical mannerisms appropriate to his role. He is always interesting to watch.

Last but not least is the character that is sprung on the audience as a surprise intruder in the security room. She is the new contract liaison officer, Trudy, a pert young lady fresh out of university. Amelia Pegrum plays the role with gusto, and her sanity in the face of Dave’s paranoid bigotry provides just the counterbalance needed to keep the satire on track. No stranger to the JUTE stage, Amelia turns in one of her best performances to date.

So there we have it. Tony Robertson and JUTE have created out of the company’s workshopping program, Enter Stage Write, a play that deserves national exposure. It takes our populist politicians’ attitudes – dominated by misplaced patriotism, anti-intellectualism, male chauvinism, and a touch of homophobia, and puts them into the crucible of logical reasoning. Satire is the weapon Robertson uses, and the audience loved it. It is not the kind of play that would go down well at the RSL – or maybe it would. Satire is sometimes difficult to spot.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sentinel Chickens

Writer: Tony Robertson
Director: Avril Duck
Set Designer: Simone Tesorieri
Stage Designer: Simona Cosentini
Light Designer: Daniel Anderson
Sound Designer: Trish Molloy
Senior Technician: Sam Gibb
Stage Manager: Ashlee Hints
Cast: Tom Gardiner, Chris White, Amelia Pegrum

JUTE Theatre, Centre of Contemporary Arts, 96 Abbott St, Cairns
www.jute.com.au
28 March-12 April

Glyn Davies

Wednesday 2 April, 2014

About the author

Glyn Davies B.A., B. Ed (UQ), M.A. (Lond.), has a lifelong interest in words. His interests range from drama and theatre, through to creative and academic writing. He is also a keen linguist with near-native fluency in French. For many years a Senior Lecturer at Griffith University’s Education Faculty in Brisbane, he taught English and Drama. Since retiring to the Tableland in 1994, he has taught Writing at James Cook University and regularly reviews theatrical productions in Cairns and the Tableland. For writers seeking publication or editing assistance he has a consultancy called 'Words that Work', and is currently editing a novel set in Far North Queensland, entitled The Girl from Mena Creek.