It’s the high heels that do it. As he takes off his red stilettos, actor Tim Dashwood transforms himself from blonde bewigged ‘Carmen Get-Me’ to hunky footy player Brent Lyall. Forget the red sequinned frock, the heels maketh the cross-dresser. It’s all in the shoes, and in the walk.
Dashwood’s role in Managing Carmen, the new work from Australia’s best-known playwright and Living National Treasure, David Williamson, had the audience roaring its appreciation at the play’s world premiere in Brisbane’s Playhouse theatre last Thursday.
Williamson was there, of course, his imposing stature impossible to miss in the foyer as I sipped on my pre-show glass of sauvignon blanc. He took a seat a few rows back from the front to see his umpteenth play since his first was staged more than 40 years ago, and I wondered if he was nervous. He looked it, just a bit.
While we waited for the action to begin, I read an interesting piece in the program by Baz McAlister, outlining the pitfalls of managing and marketing young sports stars – male and female – as they grapple with fame and acclaim. ‘From heroes to zeroes: When the mighty fall’ outlines real case studies, including golfer Tiger Woods, swimmers Grant Hackett and Stephanie Rice, cricketer Shane Warne, soccer star George Best and AFL stars Wayne Carey and Ben Cousins. Strangely, I thought – given the subject matter about to unfold on the stage – there was no mention of Australian racing car driver Peter Wherrett, who went public as a cross-dresser several years before his death in 2009. It was front-page news, but perhaps better handled than some more recent sports-star “scandals”.
As the lights went down (no curtain here; the revolving set gave us four minimalist modern scenes) we got our first glimpse of Brent/Carmen preening in a full-length mirror. Then came the rest of the cast of five: John Batchelor, who stole the show as Brent’s manager Rohan Swift, Claire Lovering as psychologist Jessica, Anna McGahan as Brent’s hired girlfriend Clara, and Greg McNeill, as sleazy sports reporter Max Upfield, who can smell a scoop.
Laughs come thick and fast, and the dialogue is snappy, but there’s a serious undertone to the show as the characters all come to terms with the revelation that Brent is addicted to dressing as a woman.
“Is it suitable to take a 16-year-old to?” asks a friend the next day.
I hesitate. Would a teenager be shocked by the frequent use of ‘the f word’ in the dialogue? Possibly not. Managing Carmen is definitely a play with adult themes, but today’s media-savvy and wordly teens – and indeed, anyone of any age in the audience – can learn something from it about tolerance for differences of all kinds. Ultimately it’s a love story, in which all the characters learn as much about themselves as about Brent and his alter-ego Carmen.
Go along and see for yourself. I didn’t see anyone leaving who didn’t look like they’d really enjoyed themselves.
Managing Carmen is a co-production between the Queensland Theatre Company and Western Australia’s Black Swan State Theatre Company, so when the Brisbane season is over, it will shift to Perth’s Heath Ledger State Theatre. Sydney will get it in December (and I know at least one keen theatre-goer there who has bought tickets already).
Oh, and if your name is Phil and you were sitting in Row M, next time please remember to turn your phone off! The QTC says a single cough measures about 65 decibels…that catchy old-fashioned car horn ring tone of yours is possibly louder.