It’s sometimes said that a show is too specific to travel, but that’s to deny the international stage language that the Australian import “Cloudstreet” so volubly speaks. Running at more than five hours (an hour worth of intermission included), director Neil Armfield’s staging of the acclaimed Tim Winton novel has arrived in London as the second on a three-stop European tour — Zurich and Dublin bookend the monthlong Blighty stand. If there’s any justice, the tour should have further global legs. After all, when’s the last time you found yourself resenting the intermission(s)?
That’s one measure of the sheer narrative drive of “Cloudstreet,” which marks a terrific ambassador for Armfield, an Oz director revered Down Under who has scarcely worked abroad. (His few credits away from Australia include opera productions in Bregenz and in Wales. On the legit front, he’s had a longstanding admirer and colleague in Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush.)
Need one have firsthand familiarity of Fremantle, Rocky Bay and Nedlands, to cite just three place names that root the play? No more than one has to know the exact terrain traversed by the Joad family to appreciate “The Grapes of Wrath,” whose Tony Award-winning staging by Frank Galati the aesthetic of “Cloudstreet” somewhat recalls. At other times, Armfield’s work echoes Peter Brook and Robert Lepage, not least in a shimmering visual design (the set is by Robert Cousins) that deploys bare boards, sand and lightly stained calico curtains to evocative and often literally elemental effect. But for all the comparisons one chooses to make, “Cloudstreet” communicates a singularly piquant voice, alongside a theatrical rapture that knows no boundary.
That rapture is most abundantly clear near the close of the second (as well as best and longest) of the play’s three acts, which collectively traverse some 20 years in the lives of two families in post-war Perth. Quick Lamb (Christopher Pitman) is taking Rose Pickles (Claire Jones) for a boat ride accompanied by Quick’s brain-damaged brother, Fish (Daniel Wyllie), who hasn’t been the same since a near-drowning when he was a young boy. While Fish falls asleep in Rose’s lap, she and Quick discover that lifelong co-inhabitants of the same Cloud Street house — a bequest to Rose’s gambler of a father, Sam (Max Cullen) — could well become lovers. Before that, though, emerge confessions of weakness and doubt flecked with the gentle humor that infuses the play throughout. Agreeing with Rose’s assessment that he is, indeed, “the lost Lamb,” Quick replies, “I feel a bit sheepish about that.”
It won’t hurt any onward trajectory of “Cloudstreet” that its abiding themes pertain to home and family, though rarely in any cliched sense. (The piece couldn’t resemble less an ad for family values.) Initially, the Lambs and the Pickles make uneasy neighbors in their large Perth home, the Pickles parents as drunken and reprobate as the Lambs are hard-working and God-fearing. In context, it’s no surprise that Rose wants out, and allows herself to be swept off her feet by Toby Raven (John Leary), an arrogant poet who feeds her spaghetti and wine and then humiliates her in public. Quick, separately, is plagued by lifelong guilt over the accident that befell his beloved brother Fish, and plans his own escape, only to be find himself swept up in the spirit of inclusion that comes to dominate the play.
“Cloudstreet” contains no shortage of big themes, from musingson good and evil to the tradeoff between innocence and experience, and it’s underscored throughout by an awareness of fractures running not just through its two families but through Australian society and the country at large. (The house has a haunted and grim history that is dramatized via shadow plays, while the recurrence of a narrative Aboriginal figure known as Black Man suggests that inclusion, sadly, does have its limits.) It’s a real achievement, then, that Armfield and his two writers put characters and not abstractions center-stage, allowing many in the cast multiple roles in the best tradition of such comparable novel-to-stage endeavors as “Nicholas Nickleby” and the output of England’s Shared Experience troupe.
The play has its own equivalent of “Nickleby’s” Smike in Wyllie’s retarded Fish, a force of tragic beneficence who becomes the play’s prevailing pantheistic spirit. Wyllie, commendably, never begs for sympathy, preferring to earn it by virtue of a radiance that comes tempered with many an eccentric, even goofy flourish. His is the show-stopping part, but the rest of the cast is every bit Wyllie’s match, starting with Jones as the barely literate, bespectacled Rose, who blossoms and matures during the course of the play. And while Kris McQuade and Judi Farr make something vivid of two wildly divergent mothers — Dolly Pickles as smoky and throaty as Oriel Lamb is abject — Julie Forsyth has a field day in a quartet of roles, starting with her turn as Red Lamb: a socialite manque-turned-nurse with a Betty Boop voice.
Shifting props that don’t drop down from the flies, the cast propel a narrative that has its own genuine sweep, so much so that it’s a real surprise to hear one character resort to that old standby, “when summer turns to autumn,” to signal the passage of time. Elsewhere, “Cloudstreet” signals very little but manages to say a lot in its depiction of home as both war zone and haven, the site of healing and of hurt. And with only the slightest tilt towards sanctimoniousness, the play ends by reinforcing the Forsterian dictum, “Only connect.” “We all join up somewhere in the end,” concludes Quick in a belated revelation, by which point there should be very few in a rapt audience who don’t feel part of the chain, too.