The Vegemite Tales
Itchy Feet Theatre and Algernon Productions
Melanie Tait's play about Aussie (and one Italian) flatmates has been in London before, but this version has been updated (and includes references to recent hits like "Is this the Way to Amarillo?").
The play focuses on Sam (Andrew Robb), at thirty-something, the veteran of the piece, having survived a flatshare in Acton for seven years. Initially he came to London to escape a broken relationship and never went back. Though Sam is the main narrator, the other characters take over at various points, talking directly to the audience.
Much of the action centres on lad-about-town Dan (Ben Steel, who starred in the TV Series Home and Away) and newcomer Maddie (Sarah McGlade) and their clumsy attempts to seduce each other. Added to the mix is Gemma (Jessica Gerger), who deserves better treatment than her boyfriend is prepared to give her; Eddie (Tom Sangster) who's unlucky in love and motorbikes, and Jane (Sarah Hadland), an uptight yoga addict who provides most of the tension in the flat and cracks a whip if any of them fall below the minimum standard of cleanliness.
The Vegemite Tales strikes a chord with Antipodeans living in London and with anyone else who may be just passing through, and is currently playing to packed audiences.
The play goes some way to explain why anyone would leave the eternal sunshine of Australia for a country that guarantees to freeze you solid during your first winter and turns your snot black (one of the character's phrases, not mine, but I know what she means). It isn't the proximity to European art galleries, better working conditions or pay. It's simply that while you are here, you don't have to worry about grown-up things like pensions, partners, having kids, or paying any but the most basic household bills. You can do exactly what you want without your family or friends sticking their oar in - they're very handily thousands of miles away.
Tait's message though, as played out through Sam's decision to go home, is that you can't avoid the difficult things in life forever. However, at times it felt as though too much of the play focused on other, less interesting, stories. A large section is given over to the Maddie/Dan love-story which, though engaging, touching and admirably played by the actors, didn't adequately play off this central theme. Another major strand focused on Gemma's unwanted pregnancy. Yet her decision to have an abortion was never really in doubt and, considering the ensuing breakdown was a major climax for the character, she recovered remarkably quickly. I thought that Sam was slightly underused as the narrator and it would have been a more unified play if the other stories had played a part in his decision.
The production was imaginatively designed by Tamasin Rhymes who obviously had great fun recreating a flat where the personnel changes frequently, leaving a hotch-potch of debris in their wake (traffic cones, guide books, throws). Bill Buckhurst, as well as directing the performance, also directed the two video clips at the beginning and end, one of which was supposed to be Sam's Mum making a plea for him to come home and involved a lot of fly-swatting, which is as good a way as any of suggesting the extreme heat of Australia. He also achieved the feat of directing an oral sex scene without offending anyone's modesty or sensibilities!
The play was a little long for its weight perhaps, but an enjoyable evening for anyone who likes Vegemite and a nostalgic one for anyone who has ever shared a flat and covets those carefree days where you didn't have to worry about life insurance.
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart