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Chris Boyd reviews The McNeil Project for The Australian

See the review in its original context here.

MALCOLM Robertson’s connection to Jim McNeil and his celebrated prison plays dates back to 1971, when Robertson conducted drama workshops at Parramatta jail, then directed the first professional production of The Chocolate Frog for Q Theatre.

Two years later, he directed a double bill of it and The Old Familiar Juice for the Melbourne Theatre Company.

These one-act plays combine well. The polemic of the first, which, on its own, might seem naive and too bluff, is counterbalanced by the finesse and tight focus of the latter.

Four decades on, Robertson plays The Chocolate Frog absolutely straight. Thanks to its archaic slang, its references to “the permissive society” and the Latin mass, the play is a period piece. But, if anything, it stands up better now than it did when previously presented in Melbourne in the late 1980s.

An arrogant and opinionated 22-year-old university student (sentenced to six months for assault) finds himself in a cell with two hardened crims. They’re unimpressed, to put it mildly, that Kevin (Will Ewing) has testified against a mate to have his own sentence cut. He is, in prison argot, a “dog”. Or, in rhyming slang, the “chocolate frog” of the title.

Shirker (Luke McKenzie) and Tosser (Cain Thompson) put Kevin — and by extension society itself — on trial for his reckless ignorance and failure to scrutinise his reasoning. It’s an unashamedly didactic piece trying a hard sell. And it’s weakened by the sheer youth and rude health of the actors playing the seasoned crims.

In Robertson’s persuasive update of The Old Familiar Juice, the ageing World War II veteran Dadda is now a Vietnam vet. (And actor Richard Bligh is smack in the middle of his sweetest range as a man who has lost what little authority he had to the bottle.)

Considerably less tendentious than The Chocolate Frog, The Old Familiar Juice concentrates on personalities and the bitter reality of prison life. “That’s not a job,” says Bulla, icily, about warders who “turn the key” on prisoners, “that’s a philosophy.”

Here, McKenzie plays top dog again, unashamedly grooming the newly imprisoned Stanley (Thompson) as his lover.

Robertson’s 1973 production was praised for its humour. This new take is all menace and inexorability.

More impressive still is the way the director and his cast handle McNeil’s slang. Old and unfamiliar expressions are made entirely (and delightfully) comprehensible. One comes away with a renewed admiration for McNeil as a playwright and for Robertson as a director.

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