The health authorities keep telling us to stay home, so I’ve been busying myself leafing through the back issues of Theatrecraft and can recommend this as a way to keep sane during the corona virus lockdown. It turns out that I’ve been a VDL reviewer for 17 years and in that time have seen over 230 shows here in the Melbourne area but also in country Victoria, ranging from Swan Hill to Foster. How could such a pleasurable experience come to someone who has never trodden the boards or even worked backstage? Thinking back, as in much of life, it was just plain luck.

My first encounter with community theatre was back in 1955 during my time in the Navy. The RAN base near Darwin where I was stationed had a small theatre group which performed The Desert Song for the local audience and as a keen photographer I was invited to take some shots of the cast.

Decades later, Michael Mace’s Adelphi Players put on a performance at the National Trust property where I was a volunteer and contributor to the National Trust newsletter in which I wrote a review of the play. This caused Michael to suggest that I might take on reviewing for the VDL, explaining that he needed an ordinary theatregoer, rather than someone already steeped in the system. Little wonder that I am forever grateful to Michael for enriching my later years.

Many other theatrical figures have added inspiration, colour and harmony to my life as the years progressed. Here I will mention just a few. Certainly successive members of the VDL Committee, led over those 17 years by notable presidents Edna Bartlett, Richard Burman, Graeme McCoubrie and now Bruce Cochrane have been instrumental in maintaining the VDL’s high reputation for excellence. Similarly, secretaries David Perkins (who also performed as treasurer in the early 2000s), Vicki Smith, Jill Edwards (who was also awards convenor for several years), Geoff Kidd and now Alison Campbell Rate have each been very effective and hardworking secretaries. I must also mention the extremely efficient, long-serving treasurer Deborah Fabbro, Theatrecraft editors John Shelbourne, Graeme Moore and Damian Vuleta, and of course the long-serving, patient and technically savvy webmaster, Geoff Kidd. With such a cast running the show, how could one not enjoy being a reviewer?

With very few exceptions, each of the 200-plus shows I’ve reviewed have been enjoyable, thought-provoking, often full of humour and occasionally very moving. Here are a few that come to mind.

One of the first was Dinner with Friends, directed by Brian Moroney at Heidelberg, which explored marriage relationships in Gen X America and opened my eyes to the need for careful attention to detail in directing. The subtleties and piquant flavour of our patron Hannie Rayson’s Life after George were very effectively demonstrated by Vicki Smith’s direction of this play performed by Brighton in 2004.

And as a fan of English history I was totally switched on by 1812’s energetic performance of William Nicholson’s play Katherine Howard which was directed by the legendary Christine Grant, also in 2004. Christine Grant also directed Ruby Moon performed by the Mitcham Theatre Group in 2005 and with principal actors Helen Ellis and Keith Hutton brought out the tragic moments in this very moving story. Mordialloc brought Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible to the stage with great distinction in 2006. It was directed by Doug Bennett and each member of the cast turned in a riveting performance.

One of the comedies that still lives in my memory is ‘Allo ‘Allo directed by Kris Weber at Essendon. Another was Bullshot Crummond, staged by Williamstown and hilariously directed by Janet Provan in 2008. A third was Noises Off directed by Julian Oldfield and Lloyd Dallas at Ballarat and which brought home to me some of the disasters that could befall a theatre company backstage.

Over the past decade I have probably become more blasé about reviewing, but several performances stand out. 2010 brought two shows that were not mainstream VDL. The first was a really enjoyable musical, Dusty: The Original Pop Diva by CLOC Musical Theatre. Co-directed by Chris White and Lynette White, with Bev Woodford as musical director, it was a toe-tapping performance that made me hope that somehow the VDL would become more closely involved in musicals. The second was Trafalgar High School’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors directed by Steve Wiegerink. It convinced me of the importance of fostering the VDL’s youth program.

1812’s intimate Bakery Theatre was the ideal setting for playwright David Harrower’s deeply insightful Blackbird. Directed by Chris Proctor and with a star-studded cast, it held the audience spellbound from start to finish. Another harrowing performance that year was The Laramie Project directed by Kym Davies at Dandenong Theatre.

I have a particular fondness for regional theatre groups and friendly MOaRTZ is one of my favourites. In 2011 they performed John Patrick’s A Bad Year for Tomatoes which was directed with a deft hand by Annette O’Shea and which brought a smile to my face months later. John Buchan’s classic novel The 39 Steps, adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, was performed by Heidelberg in 2011. It was clear that one of my favourite directors, Justin Stephens, had put in a tremendous amount to work to bring this classic tale to Heidelberg’s appreciative audience. Justin Stephens also directed The Woman in Black which was a VDL awards entry by The Basin Theatre in 2013. At this time I was an adjudicator but can recall the introduction of “steampunk” to evoke an eerie and ghostly atmosphere to what was a gripping theatrical experience.

It’s not often that a director’s first shot scares the living daylights out of a reviewer, but this happened during Geelong Rep’s performance of Gaslight in 2014. Melissa Musselwhite was the director and her work on this thriller had me shivering all the way back to Melbourne. Geelong Rep’s Pygmalion in 2017 was also a highlight, in that case directed by Alard Pett and with a star-studded cast including Melissa’s talented daughter Rose.

Among the one-act plays, the standout for me was Hartwell’s Crossed Wires in 2015. Tangled up in Blue by Brad Boeson and He Said and She Said by Alice Gerstenberg were interesting, but then came Ann Wuehler’s Interviews with Loneliness directed by Michaela Smith. The performances by Laura Bradley and Tamara Dahmen were outstanding, and Diana Stathis’s portrayal of a victim of marital violence simple tore my heart out.

Most recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be asked by Michael Mace to review a couple of favourites, including The Importance of Being Earnest which Christine Davies directed at Frankston Theatre in 2017. Other outstanding shows in 2017 included The Seafarer which Bruce Akers directed at Williamstown, Twentieth Century, directed by Nicholas Opolski at Malvern, Never the Sinner, directed by Geoff Hickey at The 1812 Theatre, The Return directed by Deborah Fabbro at Brighton and When Dad Married Fury, directed by Michael Baker at Torquay. 2017 was perhaps the luckiest of all years for me.

Then along came a couple of rib-tickling pantomimes which took me back to childhood. The first was Wonder in Aliceland which was performed at Eltham and featured great acting and music directed by Bec Fleming and Cat Fleming. The second was Snoopy – but this was really a musical for young people, performed at Beaumaris and directed by Danny Forward, with music direction by Tim Vernon and choreography by Kristy Griffin. Also in 2019, along came Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, under the whimsical direction of David Collins at Encore. What fun for someone of my age!

2018 and 2019 were also good years for regional theatres. The ever-proficient Ballarat National Theatre did a great job with the twisty-turny plot of Natural Causes, expertly directed by Peter Nethercote who also played one of the principal roles. Leongatha Lyric Theatre gave an appreciative audience the spine-chilling Death and the Maiden directed by David Tattersall, and the ever-proficient Annette O’Shea directed the sparkling comedy Rumors at MOaRTZ. One of my favourites, The Sound of Music, directed by Michelle McLean, Peter Martignoles and Serena Jefferis for the Bairnsdale Production Line Theatre Company, was well worth the trip to Gippsland.

2019 ended with three remarkable shows. Ray Cooney’s rollicking British farce Out of Order was performed brilliantly at Mordialloc under the direction of Keith Hutton; the mysterious and intriguing Blithe Spirit, directed by Neroli Wesley and featuring the equally mysterious and intriguing Dru Bartlett was a hit at The Basin; and the biting satire Tartuffe was brought to the stage at Heidelberg under the direction of Joan Moriarty. It had been a very good year.

The above list is just my own impressions of the shows I have been allocated by review coordinators Michael Mace and now Zina Carman. Other reviewers will have their own favourites and these no doubt will differ from mine. But the long list at least shows that community theatre is alive and well, and can draw on seemingly boundless reserves of talent, imagination, hard work and expertise to bring the joys, sorrows, fears and varied experiences of life to the stage.

What does the future hold for the VDL, and of course for we reviewers? It seems to me that the future is sure to be a bright one if we all keep supporting our local theatre groups, not just by attending the shows that attract us but also pitching in with voluntary work wherever possible. The work of volunteers is also vital to the VDL itself. Where would we be without a dedicated committee, equally dedicated organisers of adjudicators and reviewers, and the hard work of office staff, the editors (now online), webmasters, Facebook contributors and commentators.

Finally, the future lies with the next, and succeeding generations of directors, producers, actors, and backstage specialists. This is where our summer (and now winter) schools are vitally important. During my time Joanne Watt, along with many tutors and other assistants have kept a vibrant VDL youth program humming along in the state. This has ensured that a steady stream of young people become interested in the stage and feed the theatre world with new talent. I’m optimistic, mainly because of the enthusiasm of people I’ve come into contact with over the past 17 years.

Ken Barnes