A musical about the foundation of the Australian wool industry is a fun romp that misses some opportunities, says New Review critic Sumudu Samarawickrama
Full disclosure: I am a knitter and the title Wool! A History of the Australian Wool Industry: The Musical piqued my interest so hard it was a little embarrassing. Though I didn’t really get a show about the nitty gritty of wool’s importance to the British Imperial Project, I did learn a lot about how Australia became such a powerful producer of wool.
Son of Loft at Fringe Hub in Lithuanian House is small and black-curtained so it feels intimate– the front row is centimetres from the edge of the stage. It has room for Kyria Webster on keyboard, a wooden box and a chair, and the various props which become the characters of this show through the verve and ability of Kit Richards, the writer, singer and performer of this whirlwind escapade into the past.
Richards is fully in command of her skills as a performer, evident in the easy familiarity she fosters with the audience sitting a only breath’s space away. Moments of endearing fluster in the Friday night performance that seemed strategically planned were smart choices by director Lucy Rees and Richards. Richards has written for comedy and variety television shows, and her ability to engage the small (but sold out) crowd shows her strengths with live comedy.
There are times where Rees’ direction could have been stronger – the show starts with inexplicable moments of Richards being off stage which in the small space meant exiting the room via the door at the rear, slowing down the pace. Otherwise the stage is used well and Rees wisely leans into the controlled chaos. Scene and character changes are charmingly rough and when Webster is called upon to participate in the singing, it happens organically.
This one-woman musical moves at a clip and is delightfully dynamic. More historical stand up cabaret than a true musical, Richards, assisted by Webster in a key duet, singlehandedly moves the various characters through their songs without confusion. Kit Richards is the focus here – her charisma and gregariousness are the draw. The songs are sung in an matter-of-fact style with amiable interstitials from Richards. Although they’re funny, they sound too similar to one another to be memorable.
Wool: A Musical feels like a proof of concept, moving quickly without overstaying its welcome, but while the musical is about John and Elizabeth Macarthur and their foundational importance to the Australian wool industry, the lack of depth in characterisation and the thin exploration of the process of establishing this industry limit its lasting impact.
Richards’ accomplishment isn’t small – the pure ambition in making a one-woman musical is inspiring – but I found myself questioning the show’s purpose. If it is to work as a showcase for a full-length musical to come, the lack of narrative arc, both in the songs and more generally in the show, doesn’t bode well.
Musical theatre can give historical narratives an emotional power that is quickly and easily transmitted via the music. Richards’ lyrics miss a real opportunity to shift and refract the points of view of the characters to make them more psychologically available to the audience. Often the songs felt like the musical equivalent of one-liners, tossed away to guffaws but ultimately disconnected from any narrative intention.
There is a lot of potential in the subject matter but Richards needs to invest in the dramaturgy of her material if she wants it to work as a narrative musical. If Hamilton is the benchmark for historical musical theatre, then practitioners in the genre need to understand what Lin Manuel Miranda did: he used the deep and insightful work of a talented biographer to scaffold his musical ambitions.
She seems uninterested in the spaces within the historical record. In one of her charming asides between songs (which are impromptu and change every performance), she mentions that Elizabeth Macarthur was a popular icon of society in the colony. Several songs build on Elizabeth saying demure and supportive things like how she ‘doesn’t like to complain’. No one’s character is limited to what they write, or to what is written about them, yet Richards leaves Elizabeth as thin as the sheets of paper her letters were written on.
When John is exiled to England, Elizabeth takes over the running of her eponymous farm. She does so successfully, yet those years are summarily dealt with by Richards in a single song that merely provides uninteresting exposition. Gallingly, Richards says she diverges from the historical record to provide Elizabeth with some narratively active, yet well-worn, angst on John’s return from exile. It was a missed opportunity not to use that license to dramatise the period when Elizabeth was operating a very successful agricultural business, developing new industrial processes and setting up an export business while running a homestead and family.
Richards is very clear that her interest lies in figuring out how these two Macarthurs managed to create an industry which eventually became an indelible part of the Australian psyche. She acknowledges early in the piece that whenever she says that land was “gifted or given” she is conscious of the invasion and colonisation which have made Australia possible. This type of adequate acknowledgement feels somehow inadequate, perhaps because it occurs in a show about land and the foundational, intergenerational wealth that land created. It feels like there is an empty space is at the centre.
When talking about land disputes that John had with various colony governments, Richards jokes that, in order to make Camden Park, Macarthur not only dispossessed the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land, but also a colony of cows. The joke is a poor one and it isn’t nasty, but the smallness of the gesture may not track 1:1 with the harm it causes. Comedy in the vein of “wasn’t we terrible back then” doesn’t work anymore. It is complacency built on the illusion that performing regret is the same as acting to prevent and redress harms.
Stories about white colonisation of this continent aren’t contained to the first few months after the First Fleet arrived, or the few years after the establishment of the various British colonies. The story of white colonisation and settler occupation of the land now called Australia is ongoing, and the dispossession is ongoing (see the issue of the Djapwurrung Trees in Central Victoria).
I wonder where that leaves stories like the one Richards is trying to tell. It’s an ironic, fun primer on the basics of the establishment of the Australian Wool industry, but the lack of exploration of concerns like the presence and invisibility of the local Aboriginal tribes on the land “given” to Macarthur, the lack of interest in Elizabeth’s inner life, especially considering the type of man John is recorded as being, and the lack of insight into why the Napoleonic War allowed Australian wool to become so important to Britain, greatly thin out the experience.
Kit Richards is very talented and this ambitious show is a credit to her abilities. It’s an amusing romp at the moment, and with some investment in its development it could become an insightful and surprising piece of Australian musical theatre.
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.
Wool! A History of the Australian Wool Industry: The Musical by Kit Richards, directed by Lucy Rees. Designed by Kit Richards and Lucy Rees. Performed by Kit Richards and Kyrie Webster on keyboard. Fringe Hub at he Lithuanian Club (Son Of Loft).