‘Camp’, playing at the Ensemble, written by Gary Baxter and directed by Mark Kilmurry, is a nice play. It’s a fun play. It’s not going to change the way you view theatre but this simple, snappy local work is a crowd pleaser.
But ‘simple’ plays are deceptive. Often they’re not simple at all because sometimes characters can seem under-developed, timing is crucial, design is integral and hitting each beat and breath is paramount in making it seem flawless and plump with possibilities. There are no tricks to hide behind, no Richard III hanging from a harness and spinning like a circus act. Nope. Just acting, tight direction and utilising every element available to keep the ball rolling till the end. I think for the most part, Kilmurry and Baxter have achieved this in ‘Camp’.
As you would imagine, the play is set in a crowded campsite on Boxing Day and our characters, three married couples and their kids (thankfully, never seen and just heard or implied) encounter every obstacle you would expect- deadly wildlife, obnoxious fellow campers, extreme weather conditions, drunks, disorganisation and marriages in crisis. We all recognise the situation and environment of camping. People either love it or hate it. I would rather donate a kidney than go camping and the misery of the experience is obvious and yet, like all adversity, there seems to be a badge of honour in also surviving it.
There are a few things that impressed me about this play and the most obvious is lead actress, Michelle Doake. She is incredible. Doake’s skill in comic timing, grounded in such truth, raised this play to heights that a lesser actor could not have done. You could feel the tension in the audience as we were drawn into her every moment and the joy of her presence on stage. Doake is also fortunate that she has the most well-rounded character in the play but it means the play’s success hinges on her ability to deliver and she does. She has some fairly solid support in her ensemble with David Terry and Ben Ager and it’s always good to see Jamie Oxenbould’s comic talents grace the stage. Jennifer Corren and Karen Pang are yet to fully warm into their roles but I imagine now the play is running to an audience, this will happen.
The set design is also impressive. Anna Gardiner’s replica of a grassy camp site, complete with combi van has transformed this small space thoroughly. Other design elements such as Matthew Marshall’s lighting and Daryl Wallis’ sound completes the dimensions of the mis-en-scene by bringing the stage to life in varied and subtle ways. Marshall’s lighting evokes time, place, season and situation and Wallis’ soundscapes fill the space with those sounds that provoke our characters, such as the house music, nature, off-stage voices and weather conditions. So comprehensive is the sound that you might not even notice that there is an underscore of sound throughout the play to constantly reference the environment in which the play takes place.
Kilmurry is supported by a great team and having the playwright sit in during the process so that Baxter can tweak his work during that crucial rehearsal period is a smart thing. More writers and directors should take advantage of the collaborative nature of theatre and we should see writers as part of the active creatives available in staging a show.
I think the audience that emerge each night from ‘Camp’ will exit with a smile on their faces and certainly with admiration for Doake. So if you’re after a feel-good, harmless bit of entertainment, ‘Camp’ is as close as you can get.