This classic Australian play by Louis Nowra never feels dated, especially when it’s so capably interpreted as this Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Company co-production. Directed by MTC Associate Artistic Director Sarah Goodes, it’s a well cast rollercoaster ride of pathos and black comedy that soon has one believing in a seemingly impossible dream.

Glenn Hazeldine, Robert Menzies, Esther Hannaford, Bessie Holland, Sean Keenan and Katherine Tonkin. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The play about a group of psychiatric patients trying to stage Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte made its debut in 1992. Since then it’s rarely been absent from stages, both amateur and professional, and was adapted to the screen in 1996. It’s set in the early 1970s, and is inspired by Nowra’s own youthful experience as a consulting director at a psychiatric hospital.

In Così, that young director is Lewis. He gradually sets aside the outside world’s struggle with the Vietnam War’s political and moral questions, as he comes to grasp the fundamentals of life through his misfit bunch of would-be thespians. Lewis is sensitively interpreted by Sean Keenan, who injects just enough frustration and, ultimately, enthusiasm into this straight-man role to make him not only the ‘normal’ character the audience identifies with but also the play’s heart.

Lewis’ unlikely cast is led by manic-depressive Roy, played with nuanced energy and flair by Robert Menzies. There’s also Henry, whose transformation from almost silent anxiety in Act 1 to articulate anger then joy in Act II is one of the most powerful, moving aspects of the production thanks to Glenn Hazeldine. Big, strong, food-obsessed Cherry is played with funny, endearing frankness and physical intimidation by Bessie Holland, while in contrast Katherine Tonkin’s Ruth endears herself with obsessive-compulsive rigidity shot through with flashes of freedom.

Robert Menzies and Sean Keenan. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Rahel Romahn is a hoot as sex-obsessed pyromaniac Doug, while Gabriel Fancourt is also a comic highlight as both the heavily dosed-up, Wagner-loving Zac and Lewis’ swaggering leftie intellectual friend Nick. Also doing double duty is Esther Hannaford, playing junkie Julie with ethereal fragility and quickly conveying the soulless pragmatism of Lewis’ girlfriend Lucy in two short scenes. Rounding out the cast is George Zhao as social worker Justin. It’s a fairly thankless scene-setting and facilitating role but he nails the character’s cheery no-nonsense attitude.

Moving seamlessly through Dale Ferguson’s less-is-more black set, the ensemble inhabit their characters with such conviction, and such pitch-perfect humour, that figures who are at first annoying or enigmatic quickly become compelling, complex human beings whose past and futures matter. With a touch of 1970s garishness and daggyness, Jonathan Oxlade’s costumes help to express the characters’ inner worlds, from Cherry’s outrageous orange velour jumpsuit to Julie’s tiny tops, which accentuate Hannaford’s petite frame. The costumes for the performance within the performance are colourful concoctions of random bits of fabric and goodness knows what, which heighten the unlikely joy of this farcical, triumphant scene.

Dare I say, you’d be mad to miss this production of Così, which so effectively conveys the humour and poignancy of an Australian theatre classic.

Così is at the Sumner Theatre, Melbourne, until June 8, then plays the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre November 1-December 14

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