Vet Oz radio and TV comedian and commentator John Doyle’s debut as a playwright heralds the arrival of a legit figure to watch. The Sydney Theater Company’s world preem of his “The Pig Iron People,” a neighborhood drama played out between the seven inhabitants of a row of closely positioned terrace houses on Liberal Street in inner Sydney, is bold and fresh.
The street name echoes the political party ushered to power in the play’s opening scene, while the street’s most dominant personality, Jack (Danny Adcock), shares his full name, John Howard, with Australia’s former Liberal prime minister, elected in the 1996 election. In one of the terrific ironies of Oz politics, the Liberal Party is actually conservative, and the characters of Howard and his wife Janette (Judi Farr) are far-right bigots.
The Liberal Street construct is heavy with nuance but largely avoids actual politics, which might help the play travel beyond local audiences. Howard bullies his wife with a simmering anger matched only by vicious German neighbor Kurt (Max Cullen), given to shouting abuse at anyone who crosses his path.
Loving couple Claude (Bruce Venables) and Rosie (Jacki Weaver) live between the two men. They moved to the city from the country long ago and their sweetness is a foil for the play’s otherwise dark tones. Into this well-worn scenario moves advertising copywriter Nick (Glenn Hazeldine) with his former soap star girlfriend April (Caroline Craig), whose glamour overwhelms her new neighbors.
Doyle uses cultural friction between the old and new inhabitants of inner Sydney to push the agenda that nasty old conservatives should step aside for better-educated liberal youngsters.
The rapid repartee and rich tapestry of neighborly interplay that makes act one so watchable, however, gives way to a formulaic second act in which each of the oldies seeks out the young couple to reveal the tragedy that made them who they are.
Designer Stephen Curtis’ projections of slides and occasionally moving images create a streetscape that evokes classic inner Sydney beautifully. The transparency of these images is offset by play’s key prop, Claude’s immaculately-preserved Ford Falcon, an emblem of Aussie working-class achievement.
Perfs are generally strong but Weaver proves the standout as heart-of-gold Rosie while fellow stage vet Cullen has little to work with as the cartoonishly crazy German.