No Ordinary Affair

Paula Mandl and Samuel Audas-Ryan star in Townsville Little Theatre's 'The Graduate.' IMAGE: Kevin Chun Tie

There’s a huge difference between telling a story on paper, a screen, or a stage. While books may take two pages to introduce a character, a movie may take a 15-second montage – and a play may take two lines.

Some just don’t translate well from one to the other (why is Grease such a great movie but an average (at best) musical?!), which is no fault of their direction or cast – but a result of the adaptation itself. Therefore, knowing that it had been preceded by a novel and a movie, I attended Townsville Little Theatre’s final tech run of The Graduate last night prepared for anything – and was rewarded with everything.

The play follows protagonist Benjamin Braddock, a recent university graduate who returns home for the summer to consider graduate school options. Instead, he finds himself seduced by Mrs Robinson – an ex-alcoholic and the wife of his father’s best friend. While rebutting her initial advance, Benjamin soon decides to dip a ‘toe’ in and the remainder of his summer is spent with secret rendezvous at a $12-a-night hotel. That is, until his parents set him up on a date with Mrs Robinson’s daughter, Elaine.

Bringing Benjamin to the Old Courthouse Theatre is Townsville Little Theatre newcomer Samuel Audas-Ryan, fresh out of high school but who took this role by the horns and made Ben his own. We last saw Sam as Frederic in the 2017 production of Pirates of Penzance – and the leap from high school show to local amateur theatre is evident, with Sam’s skills already evolved significantly. There has been a clear jump from rambunctious pirate to the introspective-yet-libidious Benjamin, with Sam’s facial expressions alone telling their own narrative, before the audience witnesses his inner struggles overflow in an Act Two tirade. Surrounded by a cast of seasoned performers, Sam holds his own and earns his title of lead. This is an incredibly strong debut on the Townsville Little Theatre stage, and I have no doubt the committee will already be finding roles for him in future shows.

As Mrs Robinson, Paula Mandl’s powers of seduction are palpable. It was easy to believe she could charm Benjamin because after leaving his bedroom, she had even the audience crawling after her – albeit not lovingly. Paula played the perfect cheating seductress, eliciting contrasting feelings of lust and detest. Paula’s confidence and grace made her character the most believable. Whether she was floating across stage mid-seduction or reclined in an armchair finishing a cigarette, Paula was incredibly comfortable in her delivery and was a true stand-out.

It was even easier to detest Mrs Robinson when compared to the innocence and malleability of her daughter Elaine, played by Sarah Mathiesen. Sarah’s been flexing her acting chops recently, jumping straight from the loose-legged Candy in Cuckoo’s Nest to Mrs Robinson’s conservative daughter in The Graduate, and it’s been a pleasure to watch her role size increase – it’s hard to believe Elaine is Sarah’s first lead role, because she was natural on stage and was well-deserving of her own bow.

The vision of Director Sonia Zabala for this show has really transformed the Old Courthouse Theatre (as much as it can be), and to huge effect. As always, the set realisation and design of Glenn Shield is above and beyond what you would expect of any ‘amateur’ production, and made several scenes – such as Mrs Robinson’s de-robing – extremely effective. The theatre itself is used to its full potential, with an iconic moment during the wedding taking full advantage of the space. And where the movie uses montages to convey passages of time and the continuance of life around Benjamin, Sonia echoes this through her scene changes: during blackouts, the illumination from the set projection silhouettes characters taking each other’s places, acting through fast-forwarded conversations, and allowing the play to flow smoothly without clunky stops and starts.

The transition from movie to play wasn’t all smooth: the opening scene did seem to drag on and almost grind to a halt at times, which is hard to avoid – it is one of the longest scenes in the play, which in the movie takes place in three locations but to avoid unnecessary set changes, on stage takes place in just one. Following this though, the pace picks up and the humour of the situation Benjamin finds himself in raises the rest of the show. A later scene with Benjamin and Elaine, while long, avoided the same inactivity with a lot of clever blocking and interaction with the set. There were a couple of breaks in character last night which are sure to be ironed out ahead of tonight’s opening, and several moments of uncertainty on stage which are to be expected in the tech run phase as the set and lighting plans are finalised.

Townsville Little Theatre’s latest offering is incredibly funny – not just through the strength of its three leads, but also in its hilarious troupe of supporting roles. Benjamin’s doting parents, played by Julie Johnston and Glenn McCarthy, are perfect reflections of every mum and dad wanting to see their son succeed (before learning he slept with their friend’s wife, of course); Kevin Fujii’s presence alone is enough to let you know you’re in for a laugh, with his several roles in The Graduate allowing for plenty (especially his interactions with a surprise guest cameo); Jessie Devine shows no hesitation swapping from sassy hotel receptionist to confident tassle-twirling stripper (oh yeah, it’s best to leave the kids at home for this one); Gerard Marano begins the play without drawing much emotion as the busy professional Mr Robinson, but his final scenes with Benjamin quickly earn him some sympathy; and the silent-yet-opportune Jeremy Naughton caused more than his fair share of laughter without having to open his mouth once.

The black and white world of Benjamin Braddock seems incredibly mundane on first glance – but as his life begins to intersect with the salacious red of Mrs Robinson and the dulcet pastels of her daughter, Townsville audiences are treated to an incredibly successful retelling of a classic.

Catch The Graduate at the Old Courthouse Theatre from 12-15 September, with tickets available here. Opening and closing nights are already sold out.

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