Toy SymphonyPhotos - Rob Maccoll

There is an understated richness in every aspect of Toy Symphony. From the rigid, unforgiving box set, to the delicate simplicity of its marvellous performers, to Michael Gow’s unassuming dialogue, the play is replete with this marvellous juxtaposition of natural simplicity with deep pathos.

The audience is immediately confronted with an elephant of a set dominated by fake wood panelling. And although this set does not change, it is not really accurate to describe it as a static set, as it manages to morph gracefully back and forth across five decades with the help of a very clever lighting arrangement and just a few special effects. It is something of an achievement simply to stage the filmic convention of a flashback, but to do so as seamlessly as this team have managed is quite remarkable.

No less remarkable is the capacity of three members of the cast of five to move between characters. Ed Wightman performs no fewer than nine characters, and while some might be more accurately described as caricatures, his continual transformations are as much a spectacle as his more demanding characters. Barbara Lowing is likewise engaging as the charming Mrs Walkham, who seems to provide a point of grounding for a play that could otherwise float into very ethereal territory as it charts the story of stunted playwright Roland Henning.

Roland’s problem, as it were, is that he isn’t writing. He manages to demonstrate for his therapist, very articulately, that he most certainly does not have writers block, and does not need therapy. Which, as you might expect, leads directly to more intense therapy. It is a testament to writer Michael Gow’s skill that he is able to at once joke about the profession of psychology and take it very seriously, and one of the play’s greatest strengths is how it manages to strike that very delicate balance between being bizarre enough to enthral and being natural enough to be understood.

This is also the challenge of lead actor Chris Pitman. His delivery of those characteristically rich, flowing Gow monologues is spectacular, and at the same time perfectly vernacular. His portrayal of Roland’s vulnerability and frustration is readily relatable, replete with human resonances that are every bit as profound as they are funny.

I think the publicists must have had fun with Toy Symphony. A quick survey of the various promotional blurbs reveals substantial differences, and nothing that really provides any introduction to the play I saw. But how could they? This is a play of deep sensitivities and remarkable humour, and one that I could happily see again and again and again.

Queensland Theatre Company & State Theatre Company of SA present
Toy Symphony
by Michael Gow

Venue: The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
Dates: 16 - 20 March 2010
Duration: 150 minutes, inclusive of interval
Tickets: $50.00 - $43.00
Bookings: 02 6275 2700 |

Warning: Strong language, sexual and drug references