For some reason, every time my computer is turned off, it resets itself to 1970. This seemed more appropriate than ever on the Saturday that I took myself off to a matinee performance of David Williamson’s Don Parties On. Frankly, I was looking forward to it. Aside from anything, I respect and admire the whole concept of the ‘matinee’, because when I’m going to a show at night, the knowledge that I must summon the energy to do so tends to oppress me as heavily the livelong day as if someone were brandishing an outsized cheeseboard over my head.
Now, one of the things I was most excited about was that I was going to be able to spend some real quality time at the Victorian Arts Centre. I’ve little interest in architecture but am truly obsessed with this particular structure, and the way in which its overwhelming combination of maroon, metal and gloom makes being inside it resemble being inside a combination of a brass rubbing and an especially comfortable womb. Also, because I was there actually to attend a proper performance event for once, instead of, as usual, just hanging around the foyer, contributing nothing, I was able to loiter near the bar outside The Playhouse – a bar that is, I am thrilled to say, called ‘Rendezvous’.
However, I was also excited about seeing the play itself, because, like so many people, I find it impossible to resist a sequel to a piece of work that really grabbed me. I don’t care to leave the fates of the particular characters up to my own feeble imagination; I’d far rather leave them in the capable hands of their creators. Furthermore, the very morning that I was going to see Don Parties On, it had received a horrendous review in the Age, and I am always ghoulishly unable to resist a companion piece that, according to conventional wisdom, was a huge mistake.
Thus, I recall the time that I rented and watched Texasville on VHS; and just last year, I waited impatiently for the arrival in the post of This Life + 10, which received such user reviews on Amazon as ‘I have already disposed of my copy of this trash’. One of the reasons that This Life + 10 is so violently derided by so many is the several aspects of it that don’t mesh with the original compelling ensemble drama series; most notably, lazy old Egg having become a bestselling novelist, while one of the most believable storylines in This Life was that he was clearly only attempting to write a novel because he couldn’t stand being a lawyer for another second and, in truth, had no discernible talent for, or even genuine interest in, being a wordsmith.
On the topic of ensemble pieces about would-be novelists, however, I would defy anyone not to get the most enormous bang out of Don’s Party; the filmed version, at least. One of its great pleasures, aside from its many other ones, is that, having been made in 1976, it is a gloriously nineteen seventies version of an election night party in 1969: all orange wastepaper bins, cushions and drapes; abundant indoor plants; decorative arrangements of feathers; posters advertising the merits of Bex headache powders; and men drinking Reschs while in the nude. Production design aside, though, Don’s Party feels packed to the gunwales with ideas and people, and not merely because it was filmed entirely in a project home in Westleigh. (Apparently, the cast all stayed at the tragically-no-longer-with-us Sebel Townhouse in Kings Cross; I would argue strenuously, if pointlessly, that, for the sake of convenience, they would have been better off staying at El Rancho at North Ryde.)
My many fond memories of Don’s Party were swirling about as the curtain rose on Don Parties On (although, of course, I am only speaking metaphorically about the curtain, as the Playhouse was built in the 1980s, as opposed to in the time of Dame Nellie Melba). The good news I can impart is that ‘Nick’ and ‘Minchin’ were practically the first words that were uttered and that a roar of laughter from the audience greeted this apparent witticism. This made me feel that it’s possible to have an easy road ahead of you if you elect to be a playwright in the satirical sphere.
The bad news, though, is that only five of the old gang are present and accounted for: Don Henderson, naturally, now a school counsellor and failed, as opposed to aspiring, novelist; Don’s bitter wife, Kath; Cooley, the lecherous, extroverted lawyer; Mal, the less successfully lecherous ex-management-consultant blowhard; and Mal’s bitter wife, Jenny. This means that missing in action are Mack, the lonely soul with a taste for voyeurism and a tankard around his neck at all times, who is dead (at least his absence is explained); Simon, the pipe-smoking, Liberal-voting accountant; Jody, Simon’s snazzily-dressed, Liberal-voting wife; Evan, the angry, cuckolded dentist; Kerry, Evan’s be-eyeshadowed bohemian wife; and Susan, Cooley’s young girlfriend, who combines the independent-mindedness of Sybylla from My Brilliant Career with the low-cut blouses and tight trousers of Bev Houghton in Number 96.
I suppose that, realistically, it would have been difficult to round up every one of these individuals for a night chez Don’s, forty-one years after the original action took place, but the ranks, and the action, in Don Parties On would charitably be described as feeling thin, even with, or especially with, a few new people added to the mix. A priggish teen carrying on about climate change is no match for dollybirds ahoy. Also, and while I admit I am no mathematician, I was thrown by the fact that the characters in Don Parties On appear to be younger than they really should be. For example, Tracy Mann plays Kath and it’s my understanding that this actress is only in her early fifties (who could forget her, while clad in ‘recession dressing’, lip-synching to Deborah Conway’s brassy vocals in Sweet and Sour in 1984?). However, shouldn’t Don and his guests all be in their seventies by now, given that they were at least in their early thirties in 1969? This alone means that watching Don Parties On is like watching a play about characters some of whom just happen to have the same names as the ones in the original, when what you want is the pleasure of truly being reunited with these people, in all their seedy greatness and whatever their age.
In Kristin Williamson’s peerlessly annoying biography of her husband, there is a lengthy quotation from a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald speculating on what a sequel to Don’s Party based on the 2007 federal election would have been like. I have to say that David Williamson appears to have put more thought into his words as they appear in this particular article than he did into writing the actual sequel. It feels as though the entire play were on the page shortly after the last federal election and that, given its emaciated texture, getting Don Parties On all done and dusted in less than six months would not have presented any special difficulty.
As it happens, I once knew a fellow who would invite people over for a party and supply nothing himself, knowing that his visitors would bring everything. Well, that’s no way to do things, especially if there was this one time you threw a party and had the honour and pleasure of it going down in history as one of the best parties of all time.