Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 37, No 21. August 28, 1974
These reviews are a bit of a game really. For the reader, they're meant to give some idea of what the play is about, to enlighten, inform even; but mainly they should be a good read even if the reader has no intention of making it to the show. For the theatre, a review is an exercise in public relations; a review is simply the least painful, least offensive way of bringing in the customers.
There's a format; a round of applause, a summary of the plot, special mentions here and there and the odd bit of constructive criticism just to show that the critic knows his oats. If you can throw in a rhetorical question at the end, so much the better. Well, if in this review it seems that I'm not playing my role, not doing as a constructive critic should, then its because those responsible for 'Valdrama' long ago abandoned their part of the deal. Despite their trumpetings that 'Valdrama' was "two years in the making" it looks and sounds as if it were thrown together in the last week before performance.
First of all there's the music. The Evening Post critic was quite right in saying that its main function is to "set the mood for the action" i.e. to do the normal job of film music. Unfortunately it never rises above the level of most movie music, being just a set of riffs thrown together to give a rhythmic backdrop to the dialogue that's sung, or rather chanted by the actors. The music is all played from scores written for the composers by Tony Backhouse, and the band do quite adequately what they've been given to do. It's just a pity that they weren't made better use of. The composers, Val Murphy, Clive Cock-burn and John Banas claim that "this is the best music we've ever written and we're not ashamed of a note of it." Glory be. If they did spend two years on this score then there's cause for real commiseration that they haven't managed to come up with even one decent melody in the whole of that time. Tenth rate Jethro Tull? Not quite.
Most newspaper reports have complained that the music is too loud. I found that this wasn't so much a fault of the band, more the singers. Very few in the cast seem to know how to sing into a microphone. The policy seemed to be to sing as loudly as possible and take whatever the microphones could add as an extra bonus. Not only did this render most of the lyrics completely unintelligible but I came to fear the appearance of Robin Simanaeur as the bad wizard and his three devil assistants in a way that the composers didn't really intend — it's just that their manic shrieks and cackles delivered at full volume into hand held microphones were positively ear-splitting. It got to where as soon as Simanaeur appeared on stage I had to restrain an impulse to dive under the table.
The special effects generally went off quite well. I'm sure that the wizard's disappearance at one point will be a topic of debate among the children in the weeks to come. But something will have to be done with that spinning sun. The prop is quite a good one, although the sequence goes on for loo long. However, the sight of the sun being cranked slowly and jerkily out of sight tended to lake away the drama of the preceding scene. Other technical problems; Corben Simpson bending to give a soulful ballad, and then whipping his microphone out from under his cloak with a thunderous graunch. The sacred stone, supposedly rekindled only by the light of the sun being continually rekindled as whoever picked it up seemed to unerringly put his finger on the "on" button. These and the other technical faults could be forgiveable if the rest could compensate — here they are just one more element in the general chaos.
On paper, the plot has possibilities. A sacred stone needs to be rekindled on a dangerous quest. Evil sorcerers and a wicked prince try to steal the stone and its power, flood princes try to stop them. But the plot is 'developed' in a really confusing manner.
With the poor enunciation of the lyrics mentioned earlier, one comes to depend more and more on the narration to give some clue as to what is actually happening, and at times even that is not enough. After one song where the baddies rejoice at stealing the stone the narrator comes on to say that, ahem, actually the goodies have still got it. For all that the play could have succeeded as a good sort of fruity melodrama for the kiddies. That's about the level of its characterisation. At best, it would probably bore kids silly. The ones at my table were restless after one hour and positively mutinous by the second half. At one point, where Laspar is trying to escape from his cage, I heard one kid say "this is stupid, the bars are wide enough apart for him to walk through". Quite true! At worst, it will destroy their taste for quest mythology and fantasy altogether.
However, 'Valdrama' can never quite forget its pretensions. And it can only be morbid and violent when it tries to be something more. A "Singing in the Rain" sequence from "Clockwork Orange" is dragged in as evil Prince Tandros beats an old man. A camp villain a la Herod from Superstar is also featured.
And in the scene where Tandros temporarily prevails, a series of cardboard castrated corpses come down out of the roof, and the devil girls proceed to suck them off. Hey, sucking off a castrated stiff! Do you think John Banas is trying to tell us something?
I hope Pal Bartlett isn't silly enough to complain, and give 'Valdrama' a notoriety it doesn't deserve. I also hope the writers didn't have that in mind [unclear: what] they included the scene.
So that's 'Valdrama', an ugly morbid, pretentious piece of rank bad theatre — one wonders at the ease with which the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council money is made available for these travesties'. One would have thought that after James Ritchie's disaster of a couple of years ago that stricter standards would have to be met.
However out of all this perhaps someone can write a real quest fantasy. About a little inbred, incestuous theatre group tottering toward its 10th birthday, and having being gulled through a combination of greed and stupidity to put on a scrofulous musical by a bunch of tone deaf poseurs. Who can save this little theatre group? Who cares?