Review: THE MCNEIL PROJECT

A rare look on the “inside” of Australian life

By Deborah Langley

A cold winter’s evening was nothing to stop the almost full house of punters packing in to see the latest Wattle We Do Next production: The McNeil Project, a duo of plays written by ex-prisoner Jim McNeil.

With thick Aussie accents and hard-to-understand Aussie colloquies the first play starts with energy, passion and enthusiasm. In The Chocolate Frog, two hardened inmates Shirko (Luke McKenzie) and Tosser (Cain Thompson) put their new cellmate Kevin (Will Ewing) on trial, providing a witty commentary on the dynamics between morality and mateship within Australia’s penal system.

McKenzie is a stand-out in this brilliant cast with fast-paced dialogue and a raw masculinity which is truly frightening at times, reminding me of a young Eric Banner and a more attractive Chopper Reed. Although it did take me almost half of the show to get a grasp on the language and the accents (I don’t speak fluent ocker), as the play builds momentum the language softens and some really interesting subjects are brought to light including the difference between inmate life and the real world over communication, understanding and rehabilitation.

As McNeil himself explains: “The ‘outsiders’ looking in felt that ex-prisoners must display certain attitudes of repentance and resolve; while we ‘crims’ were busy trying to convince them that ex-prisoners don’t feel much repentance and are resolved only to extract a fair go from the mob outside.” An interesting standpoint – just a shame I had to read it in the program after the play to really grasp the complexities of the project.

The second play, The Old Familiar Juice, explores sexuality, ownership and hierarchy as three inmates (played by McKenzie, Cain and Richard Bligh) sneakily concoct a boozy brew that acts as a catalyst to unlock dormant primal urges. McKenzie again takes the lead with what I imagine is the “McNeil” character, while Cain shows his diversity performing with innocence and naivety.

I imagine that when this was first performed in the 1970s, the idea of exposing homosexual relationships within the jail system was shocking and even dangerous, but today homosexual rape presented as something justifiable (even within the confines of prison walls) isn’t a concept that sits well with me, that I understand, or even care to engage with.

Directed brilliantly by Malcolm Robertson, McNeil’s writing definitely has an interesting place in Australian theatrical history but like all playwrights who speak of a specific era and context, its continuing relevance still needs to be questioned at some point.

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

Season: Until 29 Juy 2012 | 8pm Tue – Sat | 5pm Sun

Tickets: $44 Full | $36 Conc | $30 Preview

Bookings: 03 9662 9966 or fortyfivedownstairs.com

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