Sydney Morning Herald
Bottle this one mate, there aren't many like it nowadays
Reviewed by Bryce Hallett
April 8 2002
A STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION
When you see a play and a performance as enthralling and strenuously acted as Jack Hibberd's A Stretch of the Imagination, you realise how anaemic many of today's stage incarnations are.
In the protean guise of Monk O'Neill, performer Peter Hosking combines clowning zeal and a depth of emotion to bring the one-act piece and its distinctly Australian turns of phrases and ironies to muscular, sensual life. As Monk himself might say, Hibberd has written "a corker" of a play.
Many contemporary characters written for the stage hardly invite much more than behavioural studies rather than acting of any great range. Typecasting actors compounds the problem and scripts these days are more likely to be about ideas and moral conundrums - polished and well-crafted as they may well be.
A work like Stretch, which surfaced at Melbourne's Pram Factory 30 years ago with Peter Cummins in the role, reminds audiences how leaps of imagination - and faith - are the essence of theatre. Such large, poetic, intimate and freewheeling acts are more often witnessed in stand-up comedy performances or when actors of John Bell's ilk seize a Shakespearean monster by the horns and turn in a portrait which can linger in the memory for years where others vanish in days.
No sooner had Stretch premiered than it was deemed an Australian classic, for good reason. It was bold and absurd, it spoke about and to Australians, it boisterously let rip with the vernacular, and gave its actor the chance to show his mettle. On the strength of Greg Carroll's intuitive, physicalised staging featuring Peter Corrigan's simple but clever design, and Joe Dolce's apt music, it remains every bit a classic.
Max Gillies performed the solitary Monk at The Wharf 12 years ago, earning him praise for his comic powers, and Hosking deftly breathes larrikin life, bitter-sweet struggle and tinges of the heroic to our mere mortal Monk as he shuffles towards his final dusk - "doomed never to pad the earth's crust again ... "
Hosking's febrile energy and technical range are astonishing as his peculiarly likeable yet alienating loner rolls with Les Darcy's punches, gets trounced on for his sexual indiscretions and rallies forth like a dandy in Paris, ever the wanderer - at least in his own mind.
The sheer exhilaration of the play's language - some of it recalls Barry Humphries' starkly ironic shifts and allusions - offers enormous pleasure. Hibberd's vision, despite its bleaker aspects, is not without redemption, although Carroll's interpretation is disquieting at root - the final image of Monk sure to stick in your mind.
Though Australian plays of the late '60s and '70s are infrequently revived, they tend to reveal a ferocious desire for change; politically aware bids to remove the shackles of conservatism through expressive, brazen and irreverent vaudeville-like structures and forms. Some of the plays may be rough around the edges, indulgent or consigned to the bin of noble failures, but they were rarely half-hearted and revelled in the might and mastery of words. McNeil, Buzo, Hibberd, Romeril, Williamson, Hewett and company were far too passionate about the stage, and its promise, for them to have been anything less.