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SCRUTINY | Themes, Ideas And Great Acting Light Up ARC’s Rockabye

By Paula Citron on February 8, 2024

Deborah Drakeford and Christopher Allen in Rockabye (Photo: Sam Moffatt, courtesy of ARC Theatre)
Deborah Drakeford and Christopher Allen in Rockabye (Photo: Sam Moffatt, courtesy of ARC Theatre)

ARC/Rockabye, written by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Rob Kempson, Factory Theatre, until Feb. 11. Tickets here.

The reason I like ARC theatre company is that they find plays packed with themes and ideas, where a playwright has a lot to say. These scripts may be flawed in some way, but you never leave an ARC performance without discussing what you just saw. As well, ARC productions are usually very well-directed and designed, and extremely well cast.

Take for example, the Canadian premiere of Rockabye (2009) by award-winning Melbourne-Australia based playwright Joanna Murray-Smith. As it happens, the prolific Ms. M-S is one of the most produced Australian playwrights on the international theatre scene.

Rockabye, admittedly, is one of ARC’s flawed choices but fascinating nonetheless. For starters, it is over-long, but does hold interest throughout. It also has a split personality because what happens in the second act is a complete left turn from what happens in the first, not to mention a few subplots thrown in for good measure. In other words, it may be packed to the gills, but it keeps the audience guessing.

In the first act we meet the fading 40-something rock star Sidney Jones (Deborah Drakeford with a punk blonde hairdo) who is based in London. Her money is running out and her career is down the toilet except in Eastern Europe (particularly Belarus), although she does have a gig coming up in Berlin.

Sidney is surrounded by apparatchiks. There’s her long-time, long-suffering manager Alfie (Sergio Di Zio), her personal assistant Julia (Julie Lumsden), her housekeeper/cook Esme (Kyra Harper), and her much younger ex-rocker boy toy lover Jolyon (Nabil Traboulsi). There is also the music journalist Tobias Beresford (Christopher Allen) and Layla (Shauna Thompson), she being an adoption administrator from an African country. It seems that Sidney wants to adopt an African baby.

At this point, we should mention the rather bewildering use of accents in the play. Sidney and Alfie are North American, Julia, Jolyon, Tobias and perhaps Esme (it was hard to tell) are English, while Layla is clearly from Africa.

L: Deborah Drakeford and cast in Rockabye (Photo: Sam Moffatt, courtesy of ARC Theatre); Nabil Traboulsi in Rockabye (Photo: Sam Moffatt, courtesy of ARC Theatre)
L: Deborah Drakeford and cast in Rockabye (Photo: Sam Moffatt, courtesy of ARC Theatre); Nabil Traboulsi in Rockabye (Photo: Sam Moffatt, courtesy of ARC Theatre)

The first act presents a demanding star still acting as if she were on top of the world, and Murray-Smith has great fun presenting a satiric portrait of Sidney and celebrity culture in general. For example, an outfit Sidney wants needs a special button made out of material only available in Uzbekistan, (You have to reach the place travelling on a mountain goat.)

More importantly, Sidney has just made a comeback album that could get her back to glamour status in the States if it generates good reviews. Apparently, where you rank in the U.S.A. counts for everything in the music world. Her poor manager Alfie is frantic about this and has arranged an interview with the influential Tobias. As well, Layla pops in to discuss the adoption.

Thus, the first act ends with the audience having witnessed a sometimes amusing look at the inner workings of the celebrity lifestyle.

All I’m going to say about the intense, disturbing second act is this. It is fraught with complications for Sidney, and we finally meet the real woman behind the façade of the demanding star. The major question that pervades this act is the impact on a third world child if you take them out of their environment, no matter how impoverished it may be. (Think Madonna and Angelina Jolie and their controversial African adoptions.)

Drake gives an astonishing performance as Sidney, playing against type. (The last time I saw her, she was a severe, cold and calculating nun in Doubt.) Who knew she could portray a featherhead? Di Zio borders on the hysterical but is absolutely believable, with the other cast members giving excellent account of themselves as the tension builds.

Director Rob Kempson has the first act running on rapid-fire pacing, but smartly slows things down in the second act, so the audience can take in the swirling tornado of ideas that Smith-Murray throws at us.

Jackie Chau’s simple set is fabulous. Dominating the stage is presumably an Andy Warhol silkscreen tetraptych of Sidney. It absolutes rivets the eye. There are a lot of scenes in the play, but Chau has cleverly designed colourful and chic furniture that can be easily moved. Her stylish costumes for Sidney are also eye-catching.

When it comes to Dora Award time, lighting designer Jareth Li absolutely deserves a nomination. Each scene is divided by banks of lights that flash like a rock concert, gilded by each panel of the tetraptych being given an individual parade of hues. The stage is awash in colour.

Each inter-scene is also dominated by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski’s evocative sound design, which contains snatches of a Sidney song as well as a heavy rock beat that assaults the senses. He has also composed more serious music for the latter part of the play.

Taken as a whole, there is a lot to recommend in this production, certainly more pro than con. I certainly responded well to Murray-Smith’s barrage of ideas, as well as appreciating some terrific acting pouring off the stage.

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Paula Citron
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