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By Heather Jerrems

An incredible theatrical experience. 

Friday night I was lucky enough to see the stage adaptation of Tim Winton’s 1991 novel Cloudstreet, reimagined for Perth Festival under the direction of Matthew Lutton.

To be honest though, when I requested to review Cloudstreet had no idea it was 5 hours in length.

I developed some concerns pre-show as my companion for the evening was my very sleepy partner who’s bedtime is strictly at 8:30pm, as in, wherever he is at 8:30pm, he WILL fall asleep (the comfortable velvet chairs of His Majesty’s definitely didn’t help the situation!).

However for me, the 5 hours weren’t long enough.

Cloudstreet captivated me in a way that I haven’t felt a production do for a long time. It was real, honest, compelling theatre. Talented actors, and a rich story layered with meaning, with a perfect symmetry between sight and sound. Cloudstreet moved me.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Winton’s Cloudstreet let me give you a little back story and explain why this performance is so special for modern Perth audiences.

The Black Swan State Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre (Melbourne) co-production of Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’, at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, Western Australia. Photographed by Philip Gostelow, 20th February 2020.

Cloudstreet is a key piece of Australian literature. It traces the story of two working-class families the Pickles and the Lambs who, in a turn of unfortunate personal events, end up living together in a giant house in suburban Perth. The story is set over a span of 20 years, from the 1940s to the 1960s and is shaped along the way by historical events, creating a microcosm of Australian life in the mid-1900s.

The Cloudstreet house tells its own story. Previously operating as a mission, it is haunted by the ghosts of First Nations girls, and the white women that held them captive in the house. There is only one character who can see the ghosts, a boy named Fish Lamb who was involved in an accident where he almost drowned, leaving him with a brain injury and an intellectual disability.

The heart of the story is held in the families and the way they contrast each other greatly. The Lambs are hardworking, good honest people while the Pickles are mixed up with debauchery and addiction. The Lambs trust in God and the Pickles make their own luck. However, living over 20 years in the house together their lives intertwine, and they begin celebrating and grieving as one big family. It is joyous, heart-felt, harrowing, and tragic all at the same time.

While this is a new production, it is important to note that this isn’t the first time Cloudstreet has appeared on the stage. The first was in 1998, also 5 hours long, when Winton’s novel was adapted by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo, commissioned by Black Swan Theatre Company Belvoir. They produced an award-winning production that toured Australia, London, Dublin, New York and Washington DC.

Lutton’s adaptation for Perth Festival 20 years later is an equally powerful work. Created for a contemporary audience, it gives a new generation an opportunity to experience the loved theatrical experience of 1998 for themselves.

Although similar, Lutton’s work is an entirely new experience. The script has been made more relevant with some notable changes, most prominently, and importantly – the space and amplification given to the Indigenous voices in the play. The Noongar language has been beautifully woven into the script, and a contemporary, culturally diverse cast takes the lead. Indigneous actors play characters who were originally written as caucasian, removing the cultural divide and telling a new story of equality.

Lutton has taken care to ensure every element of this production is excellent. There are some very notable performances, particularly by Greg Stone (Lester Lamb), Benjamin Oakee (Fish Lamb) and Bert LaBonté (Sam Pickles) while the rest of the cast effortlessly transition through hours upon hours of performance without missing a beat.

The production team has created symmetry throughout the performance with dynamic stage and sound design that travels around and through every inch of the space. There are some visually stunning moments of projected visuals, shifting walls and falling and rising water that stood out. The soundscapes throughout are powerfully immersive however I did feel as though the reoccuring shock sound cues were slightly overdone in the latter half of the show (it was hilarious to see the couple in front of me jump every single time).

There was something very special about the experience of watching Cloudstreet in Perth. Our city is the play’s most relevant audience and Perth audiences will feel at home with the ongoing mentions of familiar landmarks, and little quips about Nedlands being a well-to-do suburb. If you take it, there’s also opportunity to delve deeper, piece together what happened in the past, and feel a sense of ownership of the stories being told for the future.

This show isn’t just another piece of Australian theatre, it’s an incredible theatrical and immersive experience. I highly recommend getting along to see it if you can!

Cloudstreet is showing at His Majesty’s Theatre for Perth Festival until March 15 with tickets from $39 – $159 + BF available at https://www.perthfestival.com.au/event/cloudstreet/.

Photo credits: Phillip Gostelow