'Poor Boy'

Melbourne Theater Company opens its new state-of-the-art Sumner Theater with an impressive staging of local writer Matt Cameron's bittersweet dream-play of loss and regret, "Poor Boy," laced with songs by seasoned popsmith Tim Finn of Crowded House and Split Enz.

Melbourne Theater Company opens its new state-of-the-art Sumner Theater with an impressive staging of local writer Matt Cameron’s bittersweet dream-play of loss and regret, “Poor Boy,” laced with songs by seasoned popsmith Tim Finn of Crowded House and Split Enz. But despite vivid physical trappings, big thematics and a number of fine performances, the end result is diffuse, showcasing a curiously bland turn in the central role by screen star Guy Pearce in a rare reappearance on a home stage.

Pearce plays the deceased Danny, a ghostly spirit who inhabits the body of 7-year-old Jeremy (portrayed with solemn grace at the perf reviewed by Jack McKinnis-Pegg, alternating with two other young actors), thereby wreaking emotional havoc in the lives of two already dysfunctional households.

One, Jeremy’s family, is headed by shipman Sol (a wonderfully spiteful Greg Stone) who’s already at sea with restless wife Viv (Linda Cropper) and sexually curious teen daughter Sadie (a hilariously sassy turn from Sara Gleeson). Meanwhile, Danny is survived by his piously driven mother Ruth (Sarah Pierse), darkly troubled brother Miles (substantively fleshed out by Matt Dyktynski) and a still slouched-with-grieving widow Clare (Abi Tucker in a one-note part).

As the protag’s not-so-blithe-spirit weaves and wafts his elegantly probing way among each conflicted clan, past secrets are vexed and unveiled, while present woes are poetically voiced, often musically so.

It’s the uneven rendition of these wispy, wistful mood-ditties (some of them already known from the composer’s prior output) that reinforces and just as often undermines the onstage dynamics. Overall effect is further challenged by a five-piece ensemble whose zealous playing at times threatens to drown the characters’ not-always-robust singing voices.

Though by all accounts their creative collaboration has been close, there’s something of a disconnect between dramatist Cameron’s metaphor-heavy intensity and Finn’s amiable lyrical lightness. It’s a bit like lacing Ibsen with Gilbert & Sullivan.

Otherwise, Simon Phillips’ atmospheric production is graced by Iain Aitkin’s evocative set design, which might be labeled “domestic nautical” (replete with upper-level quasi-crow’s nest and downstage bullrushes) and Nick Schleiper’s tonally apposite lighting.

Poor Boy

Sumner Theater, Melbourne; 500 seats; A$79.20 $51 top

Production

A Melbourne Theater Company, Sydney Theater Company presentation of a play with songs in two acts by Matt Cameron and Tim Finn. Directed by Simon Phillips. Musical director, Ian McDonald.

Creative

Sets, Iain Aitkin; costumes, Adrienne Chisholm; lighting, Nick Schlieper, production stage manager, Alyson Brown. Opened Jan. 28, 2009. Reviewed Feb. 3. Running Time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Danny - Guy Pearce Viv - Linda Cropper Sol - Greg Stone Ruth - Sarah Pierse Clare - Abi Tucker Miles - Matt Dyktynski Sadie - Sara Gleeson Jeremy, The Boy - Jack McKinnis-Pegg/ Gulliver McGrath/ Hunter Stanford
Musical numbers: "Poor Boy," "Into the Water," "Ghost Girl," "Underwater Mountain," "Out of This World," "Not Even Close," "In a Minor Key," "Astounding Moon," "Persuasion," "Walking Through the Ruins," "I Hope I Never," "Unsinkable."

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