‘A Coogi cardigan of vibrant colours swirling in uneven sashes’: New Review critic Monique Grbec reviews Albert Belz’s Astroman
Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine sets a high octane shoulder-shimmying mood for Astroman, Albert Belz’s love letter to the ‘80s at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio. The spirits of those of us who lived an ‘80s childhood danced with nostalgia. It was the decade when the coolest kit included hightops, KT26ers, bum bags, bomber jackets, baseball caps and walk-mans; when the hip kids had rat tails and could breakdance; and when they cruised to the video arcade on BMXs or roller-skates.
The play, directed by Sarah Goodes, is set in Geelong. Jiembra (Jimmy) Djalu (Kamil Ellis) enters the stage riding a brand spanking new red and white BMX. It’s 1984 and his thirteenth birthday. He tells the tall tale of how his dad, who’ll be the first Aboriginal to fly to outer-space, gave it to him and his twin (Calen Tassone) to share and effortlessly solves a Rubik’s Cube.
At the local video arcade, Jimmy talks about seeing different patterns in different games and how that understanding how the patterns work gives him the edge that keeps his initials firmly placed at the top of every leader board of every game at the arcade. He is the smart twin to his football star brother: only Jimmy can make 20 cents last an hour.
When the boys leave their new bike chained up outside the cinema while they watch The Karate Kid, the bike is stolen by MJ (Nicholas Denton), the local lout. With the support of the video arcade owner Mr Pavlis (Tony Nikolapoulos) the bike is retrieved, but Jimmy’s lie is also revealed. The bike wasn’t a gift, he stole it. There is no explanation why he said his dad gave them the bike.
Elaine Crombie is the strong, hardworking resilient mother Michelle Djalu. In a no-frills canteen dress with cardy and white leather Reeboks, her comic timing pops like the sugary fizz of Pop Rocks. Along with Mr Pavlis and Mrs Taylor (Tahlee Fereday), a rare teacher with spare time and the inclination to appreciate Jimmy’s potential, the trio works to keep Jimmy out of trouble.
Mr Pavlis hosts a video game championship and names Geelong the “video gaming capital of the world”. Astroman, a video game with three distinct yet random patterns, is cutting edge video gaming technology and Jimmy’s greatest challenge. In order to win the competition, Jimmy must learn to take opportunity when it comes. Using the super bomb, he annihilates the patterns, wins the game, the competition, and his stolen bike.
MJ and his gang retaliate by smashing the arcade, all of its games, and the fragile emotions of Mr Pavlis. With her big heart brimming, Mother Djalu rallies the kids and saves the situation. Even MJ pays penance and participates in getting the arcade ready for business. As Jimmy accepts a full scholarship to study computers in Melbourne, the tangled weave of subplots include romances between Mr Pavlis and Mrs Taylor, and MJ aka “Nick the Prick” aka “Stud” and Fereday as the roller-skating breakdancing sass-ter, .
The sweet melody of Walking on Sunshine is finally realised as happy endings for everyone. Metaphorically the audience meandered through the story and then, after stopping for intermission, we were swept away into the promise of that bright, sunshine-filled future of togetherness. The superficiality of this, while apt for an exploration of ’80s consumerism, feels outdated.
For all the talk of patterns, instead of being absorbed from within the clear mind of gaming design, or a catchy ’80s chorus that binds a message, Oxlade’s suburban, low income set design clashed with the 80’s teen fashion. A multitude of storylines were open ended and superfluous. I found myself unable to appreciate the beauty of its patterns.
In ’80s speak, Astroman was like a Coogi cardigan of vibrant colours swirling in uneven sashes, like strips of paper-bark on a tree. In the year 2018, I appreciate the jumper is warm and colourful, but I can’t forget that there’s a certain privilege that comes with owning one. I cannot forget that the multi-coloured multi-textured palette is a distraction, a sugar coating of cultural cleansing.
The New Review program is a collaboration between Witness and Footscray Community Arts Centre West Writers that nurtures and mentors new critical voices. It is part of Malthouse Theatre’s Living Now resident writers program, funded through the MPA Collaborations program, and has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Astroman, by Albert Belz, director Sarah Goodes and associate director Tony Briggs. Set and costume designed by Jonathon Oxlade, lighting design – Niklas Pajanti, composer and sound design by Jethro Woodward with associate sound designer Tom Backhaus. Stage manager Christine Bennett. Performed by Elaine Crombie, Nicholas Denton, Kamil Ellis, Tahlee Fereday, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Calen Tassone. Melbourne Theatre Company at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio. Until 8 December 2018. Bookings
Contains coarse language, sexual references, mature themes, use of herbal cigarettes, haze and strobe effects. For detailed information about the production’s content call our box office on (03) 8688 0800.
The venue is wheelchair accessible and hearing assistance is available
Astroman will be Audio Described on Tuesday 20 November, 6.30pm and Saturday 24 November, 4pm with a tactile tour at 3pm prior to the Saturday performance.
Captions are available via a screen for the performance on Thursday 22 November, 8pm