Australia has a population of about 20 million, and it is said that at any one time about one million of those are overseas. A high percentage will spend at least part of their time abroad as an expatriate in London.
This is a long-term phenomenon. The veteran journalist and writer Murray Sayle has spoken of his experience of coming to London as part of a “mass movement … a section of the young artistic and professional group making the customary pilgrimage to London … we were looking for something we couldn’t find at home, and we weren’t coming back without it."*
That’s what most of the characters in the comedy The Vegemite Tales, which has just opened at The Venue in Leicester Square, are doing – seeking something, even if they’re not sure what, in the big, challenging arena of London, far from the comfortable limits of “Home”. (The title, in case you don’t recognise it, comes from the definitive Australian food item, a spread slightly like Marmite, said to be found in every expatriate’s cupboard.)
It is an experience that playwright Melanie Tait enjoyed herself, and her intimate knowledge of the life of an Aussie expatriate – both its physical texture and emotional tugs – shines through. Some reviewers of past productions have complained of stereotypes and clichés, but walk into any Walkabout Bar on a Friday night and you'll
soon learn this is a true-to-life account. It starts with the self-conscious introduction to the flat-share all these characters call home by Sam (Andrew Robb). He's a seven-year London veteran who's de facto house father to the five other residents of this Hammersmith flat. He proudly explains that this isn’t the stereotypical London flatshare of 14 Aussies in a flat in Willesden: “There’s only one dosser.”
That “dosser” is Eddie (Tom Sangster) – the most captivating character in the midst of an excellently sketched collection of individuals. He sleeps on a surfboard in the living room, is unable to get a job, and is as hapless and hopeless an ex-shearer – a Crocodile Dundee portrayed with some sophistication – as might be imagined.
Making up the final of the trio of the Australian males is the Lothario Dan (Blair McDonough), who adopts an aggressive Ocker masculinity as a defence against the complexities of London: “My dick is my life; it is all I’ve bloody got…” he exclaims. When that approach finally starts to fall apart is perhaps the funniest moment in a play packed with laughs – the funniest sex scene, or rather non-sex scene, you’re likely to see in many a year on the London stage.
The weakest character is the only non-Australian, Gio (Andy Leonard), the token suave European showing these Aussies the way to handle relationships. The women have rather less stage time and fewer laughs, but stronger tales – they are the ones who carry the strong narrative threads behind the laughs, particularly Gemma (Jessica Gerger).
Tait does an excellent job of weaving the comedy and drama – never an easy task, and of the nods to the audience, which flow naturally. It is hard not to feel that she’s modelling the central female character Maddie (Sarah McGlade) on herself – the writing’s perhaps just a little too sympathetic to her, but overall this is a virtuoso performance by the playwright.
The cast throw themselves into the jokes with buoyant enthusiasm, yet also manage the transitions to drama with panache. Robb is particularly warm and sympathetic as Sam, and Sangster does a fine job of making the hapless Eddie a believable scamp.
On opening night it only took one bar of the Neighbours theme tune to start the audience laughing, and you only have to wait five minutes for the first Melbourne joke, but there’s still plenty here for a non-Antipodean to enjoy. The experience of being an expatriate is one that the young of the world increasingly share, and the feelings of being alone in a foreign land are universal.
The production continues until September 23.
Links: the theatre, with online booking.
* Quoted in When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain, Stephen Alomes, p. 48.