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A CurtainUp London Review
The Vegemite Tales
We could hear the Australian accents all around us in Leicester Square as we approached The Venue, the underground, ex-comedy club which is hosting this cult, comic play about the Australian ex-patriate community living in a flat in London. The Vegemite Tales has been doing the rounds for at least seven years but it can still draw an appreciative, Antipodean crowd.
Set in Acton, a West London suburb where there is affordable housing close to Central London, four men and two women house share. The only non Australian is the token European, Giovanni (Andy Leonard). Vegemite is the uniquely Australian version of that strange British beef flavoured savoury spread, Marmite. While Marmite divides people into lovers or haters, Marmite lovers in turn will love or despise its colonial cousin Vegemite. The London experience for many young Australians is a GAP type interlude between finishing full time education or training in a profession and returning to Australia where they will get a respectable job and settle down. For most this will last a matter of months but for some like Sam (Andrew Robb), the play's narrator, it will be the best part of a decade.
The characterisations are the play's strength. Sam likes to keep an almost complete collection of Lonely Planet travel guides in strict alphabetical order. He is the balanced reasonable character who keeps the house together. Hedonist Dan (Blair McDonogh) sleeps with more girls in a year than Sam has Lonely Planet volumes. Eddie (Jonathon Dutton) sleeps on the living room floor out of a sleeping bag surrounded by his surfer gear and provides much of the play's physical comedy especially when he does a wonderful impersonation of Mick Jagger in "Let's Spend the Night Together". Eddie tries to get a job as a hairdresser using his five years experience as a sheep shearer but the human customers resent "his head in an arm lock" approach. Gemma (Jessica Gerger) is a beautiful, normal girl who gets along with everyone. Jane (Josephine Taylor), from classy Melbourne, likes a clean flat and runs a tight ship. Maddie (Anna Skellern) doesn't live there but is the girl Dan has set his sights on. Gio, who works as a chef, provides comic pastiche when he swears in delightfully offset English. Surrounded by a plentiful supply of tinnies or stubbies (cans of beer), "Up Yer Bum" is the toast each time anyone puts beer to his lips.
The first half sets up the personalities generously laced with lots of jokes, profanity and raw humour. There is a wonderful opening video of someone's Mom back home making an internet postcard from home which sets up the comedy where these good natured Australians can take delight in the ridiculous. The second half has a rather contrived poignancy as one member of the household struggles against bad luck and Dan tries to live as a reformed character. The acting style is exaggerated like a cartoon, but always lively and fun provoking. It feels a little less like theatre and more like a comedy club evening, but it is easy to see why so many Australians want to return with their friends for an evening reminding them of home. The Vegemite Tales is, of course, also a story of youth culture and the rites of passage as young people branch out on their own thousands of miles from home.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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