Not About Nightingales’

‘Not About Nightingales’ was the first play of the American political writer, Tennessee Williams, who was only 27-years-old and still unknown as an author. This 1938 real-life gripping story is very much an adult play that won a Tony Award for Best Play.‘Not About Nightingales’ is based on the true story of a prison scandal that shocked the US in the mid-1930’s.

Life on Hold Productions have never been shy about tackling little known plays or scripts that are too difficult for most companies. This play was 60 years old before it was first performed in London (after it was discovered by Vanessa Redgrave) and yet incredibly this is its Australian premiere. Williams’ 100 plays include ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘The Glass Menagerie’  are still exceptionally popular around the world, but no one in Australia has seen this play yet.

My immediate reaction was that if it has not been staged until now, it must be rubbish. How wrong can one be? The sympathetic treatment of blacks and homosexuals was revolutionary for the time and may be another explanation as to why the play remained unproduced for 60 years.

Last Drop Brewery – excellent pre-show food available at sensible prices – is at 507 Nicholson Road, Canning Vale. The curtain goes up at 7.30 pm on this two-and-a-half-hour powerful play – including a 15-20-minute interval.There is a 5 min pre-show sequence to set the scene, which hopefully audiences will appreciate. A huge amount of work has gone into this marathon a two-act (originally 3 acts) play by this company. Audiences often ask for something a bit different – well this is it.

The season runs from September 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 23, 25 and 26. The first Act is 75 minutes, the second is 45. Book at or call TAZtix on 9255-3336.

This show is almost 150 minutes but does not flag, it will hold your attention throughout. It has cruelty, but there is also humour, a love affair, abuse and comradeship.

The Scene: An infamous Pennsylvanian prison, Monroe City Penitentiary during the Great American Depression of the 1930s.

The Set: Is a long side room of a popular hostelry. The walls are bare red brick, with bars at the windows. The cells have cage panels for walls. The inmates’ beds are basis boards. Centre stage is the exercise yard, later used as the Klondike room, where the temperatures can reach up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 Celsius). To the right is the warden’s office with an oak desk, typewriter, dial phone, filing cabinets and an office oak armchair.

The extensive lighting was designed and installed by John Woolrych. It was impressive, with a chilling blue light for the cells, a scarlet for Klondike – with steam – and various guards’ security spotlights. Most authentic.

Sarah Christiner’s sound design was crisp, realistic, threatening and creepy. Stage management and teching by Kate and Sarah.

On entering the theatre, the audience are welcomed aboard by the Captain (Kate O’Sullivan) of the river cruise boat the Lorelei. The Captain sails us next to the prison before recounting the horrendous happenings within the gaol.

                A young man sits in the prison yard singing French songs. He is in a straight jacket. For no reason a guard, Schultz (Lliam Gregory) hits him with a truncheon and drags him off to the cells.

Young attractive Eva Crane (Nicole Miller) and middle-aged Mrs. Bristol (Petrina Harley) chat outside the Warden’s office. Eva is there for a job interview whilst Mrs. Bristol is there to give her son, Sailor Jack (Alec Fuderer) a prisoner who was once a sailor some homemade food.

Canary Jim (Chris Kennedy) is a trustee convict who has been at the prison for 10 years; during the day he helps out Warden Whalen (Chris Thomas) an obnoxious heartless man. Eva has to grovel to Whalen for a job. Jim returns to his cell where his cellmates are constantly calling him names, especially Canary as they think he ‘sings’ to the Warden.

The next morning Mrs. Bristol returns with more food. The Warden callously explains that her son had gone mad and had to be dealt with. As secretary Eva talks to Jim, she finds the convicts’ food is terrible but later the warden says that the prison is much admired, and the food is fine. When the warden relates a gruelling story to Eva about Jim’s arrival at the prison, she faints.

Due to poor food, the prisoners begin to get pains in their stomachs. Powerfully built Butch (Phil Barnett) an outspoken convict leader says that it’s the result of rotting food and suggests to his cell mates that they all go on a hunger strike; guitar plucking Joe (Josh McGee) and nervous old gay, Queenie (Trevor Dhu) are both apprehensive of the idea. Queenie’s eyes light up at the arrival of ex-Olympian Swifty (Curig Jenkins) a good-looking young man.

Ollie (Erik Bibaeff) is an intelligent, well-respected black convict, who is deeply religious and prays as he struggles to cope. The oldest prisoner is Shapiro (Rex Gray), a Jewish man who, like Queenie, has been persecuted all his life and yet he too finds the condition deplorable. Poor Mex (Andre Rodrigues) is a Spanish speaking Mexican who cannot converse so spends his days praying to Jesus and Mary.

Will the convicts get justice? Or will the warden and screws talk their way out of the situation? What will happen to the blossoming love of Eva and Jim?

Director Sarah Christiner can be proud of the result. She has taken a difficult play to stage, edited the dialogue to cut the play down from 3 hours. The editing has been carried out skilfully, retaining the superb structure of the playwright’s dialogue. Every member of the cast was taken well out of their comfort zone in this demanding play. Each actor has given their all and nailed the mood and storyline. Tennessee’s clever script had numerous references to places and famous literary quotes. His writing style changed as he moved around the large cast, giving everyone a strong, rich and very different characterisation.

The cast had a few first timers along with several actors that I had not seen for several years. Did Sarah really go to the actors’ graveyard and dig them up? Even with years between parts, the compelling performances were immaculately delivered and with buckets of emotion. The audience were gripped throughout.

The cast supplied their own costumes. Petrina and Nicole captured the era particularly well. Congrats on the police uniforms and Chaplain’s vestments.

What I expected would be a heavy, dull, dragging play was in fact fast moving, with great characters, a solid storyline and amazing performances. Technically difficult to stage, but everything worked.

Certainly worth seeing. A solid 5-star production.