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Richard Watts reviews The McNeil Project for ArtsHub

See the review in its original context here.

Hailed in the 1970’s as Australia’s answer to Jean Genet, prisoner turned playwright Jim McNeil was destroyed by the very fame that saw him released early from a 17 year jail sentence. Without the strict routine of prison life, McNeil’s violent alcoholism soon got the better of him, and he never wrote again. He died in 1982, aged 47.

The McNeil Project at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs, features two of Jim McNeil’s one-act plays: The Chocolate Frog – a relatively simple work – and the altogether darker, more complex The Old Familiar Juice.

Common to each play is the character of a newcomer being introduced to the realities of prison; both works also serve to introduce audiences to the internal laws and peculiar logic of jail life.

In The Chocolate Frog, 22 year old university student Kevin (Will Ewing) is the defendant in a kangaroo court held by his new cellmates, Shirker (Luke McKenzie) and Tosser (Cain Thompson). Acting as prosecutor, the hot-headed Tosser accuses Kevin of being a dog, an informer, for dobbing in a mate. As both judge and defence lawyer, the more level headed Shirker argues that Kevin is not guilty on the grounds of being ignorant of prison laws.

In The Old Familiar Juice, it’s now Thompson, as the innocent Stanley, who is the newcomer. Introduced to potent, cell-brewed grog by Vietnam veteran Dadda (a superb performance by Richard Bligh) and the threatening Bull (McKenzie), it quickly becomes clear that Bull’s motivation for getting Stanley drunk is sinister indeed. It’s a beautifully observed prison drama, ripe with menace and a helpless sense of the inevitable.

Both plays feature McNeil’s clever ear for dialogue, and while the prison slang of the Seventies sounds slightly dated to modern ears, the scripts still sparkle with wit, tension and deft characterisation.

Thompson is impressive in both his roles, his deft physicality conveying both Tosser’s anger and Stanley’s naivety of his physical charms. As Bull, McKenzie is suitably predatory, though he is less convincing in The Chocolate Frog, where his accent and delivery of lines sound slightly out of keeping with the character he plays. Ewing is good in his limited role, but it’s Bligh who is the standout performer of the four. His helplessness in the face of Bull’s rapaciousness both chills and saddens, and he superbly embodies the wounded pride of a soldier turned prisoner.

An engaging production of two significant Australian plays, sparsely and deftly directed, and effectively staged.

 

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