The Exchange FringeGuru
We think nothing of saying "I'm just popping out back for a minute". But there's more to that phrase in Australia; something of a spatial, existential nature. Written in 1988 out of daytimes in the shearing shed and weekends in the local bar, this is an Aussie experience far removed from Neighbours. No barbies, no thongs, no roos. Beaut.
Except that Ramsay Street is a cul-de-sac and so, dramatically speaking, is The Exchange. Writer and performer Philip Aughey sits us down in the Exchange Hotel, Muttaburra (pop. around 35), in Queensland's central-west – just the 60 miles from the nearest 'A' road, and 758 miles NNW of Brisbane. Not too remote by Australian standards, more grazing land than outback; but the "Wet" happens over three months (if you're lucky) and the rain is "bird's piss" for the rest of the year. You don't need to see the flies, nor the rats – and there was a croc, once, on Bruford Street.
Inside are Cyril and Toby. Cyril (played by Aughey), older, had been a stockman and Toby (Bradley Burgess), a shearer. They have been mates forever and from Friday morning to Saturday midnight have no idea who's buying. Beer on Fridays, rum on Saturdays, and that's how it is – has forever been.
In a sit-com, Cyril and Toby might be likeable old-timers, but The Exchange is not four scenes of folksy banter. Cyril stinks, because he doesn't wash and his trousers are worn through. His speech seems childish, but like a child, he is interested in the big questions: for example, where's God and that Buddha bloke? There is no one at home for Cyril; there is actually only his mate left for him, but still there's the worry, "You're not going to consume me, are you Toby?" Now there was a conversation that was going somewhere but, no, Toby was in no condition to answer.
Unsurprisingly, long-suffering barman and manager Ron (Matthew McFarlane) is lost, stonkered, and his laconic philosophy is equally hopeless. And Toby, for his part, is mildly overbearing, but just as drunk and needy. There is rhythm and merit to this artless dialogue, but it’s unrelieved.
It would be very good, all agree, if something different happened, if – literally – someone else came into their lives and picked them up. But once the road was fixed, it seems that everyone took the by-pass and left town.
Which is how I felt. Faded, displaced, stuck. The Exchange takes you away and puts you hard up against inaction, old age, loneliness and drink. The programme promises “outback humour”, and you’ll smile – sometimes – but you’ll thirst for tears, or simply another beer. Nevertheless, there's tough love, pathos and humanity, all the way back to Muttaburra.
In a deserted bar in a dusty town somewhere in the Australian outback, a barman prepares himself for the drudgery of a long day. After a brief phone call, where nothing much is said, two dishevelled characters enter, irritated at having already missed three minutes’ drinking time. They quibble with each other over who is to “shout” the first drink, and once the barman has resolved this debate – the first of a recurring motif – the day’s drinking begins. With it comes constant repetition and bickering between the two men, while Ron the barman wearily fuels them and their idle banter with alcohol.
The audience is also trapped in the dreary nothingness of existence that these men seem to face daily.
Anyone familiar with Beckett will immediately spot a likeness to the nihilism of Waiting for Godot or Endgame. The scruffy, demented-sounding Cyril and slightly more dapper Toby are a strange mix of several of Beckett’s characters, trotting out lines such as “I have to wait all of today to get to tomorrow,” and “It helps to pass the time,” while discussing the presence of rats, crocs, and how many sheep they could shear in a day. The audience is supplied with a glossary of Aussie terms, printed on a glossy laminated sheet, although none is particularly alien – but this is doubtless part of the desiccated humour.
With the constant repetition of “whose shout is it,” the continual cancelling-out of one another’s lines, and the sense of waiting for nothing (or possibly something) to happen, the audience is also trapped in the dreary nothingness of existence that these men seem to face daily. Like Beckett, it is somehow captivating. The venue has a cabaret-style seating arrangement, so the audience could be in the bar with these colossal bores, and yet there is no reason to identify with the drinkers, since drinking – and talking rubbish – is all they seem to do.
With so little action, seemingly meaningless dialogue, and barely a plot to speak of, this is a strangely satisfying play that not everyone will enjoy.
When Ron, the barman, drifts into the audience and his own thoughts, sweeping up nothing with a dustpan and brush while the drinkers prattle on, it feels as if the fourth wall has been breached if not broken. He ponders, over Toby’s racist rant, that it’s a bit dull being happy – but Cyril and Toby drag him back into their drudgery soon enough. Ron’s happiness is equally contestable: he merely exists. Even when he infects the men’s beer with rat poison, having caught his fingers in a trap (with little apparent pain) it seems unlikely that anything will come of it. Matthew McFarlane plays Ron with such nonchalance, bordering on boredom, one almost pities him.
Like in Godot, in The Exchange, nothing happens twice. The drinkers return on the following day, and a false expectation that something might actually happen (since it is a Saturday) is quickly put down to a joke played on Bradley Burgess’s haughty Toby. Phillip Aughey’s idiotic Cyril starts to grate, but like Lucky in Godot, he is given an opportunity to demonstrate the ability to think, yet is halted by Toby. This is hard drama to pull off, and the eventual intrusion of the tinkling phone is a blessed relief to the audience as well as the characters. Of course, nothing comes of it, and the quietly resigned and obedient barman finally cracks. Well, ‘cracks’ might be an exaggeration.
With so little action, seemingly meaningless dialogue, and barely a plot to speak of, this is a strangely satisfying play that not everyone will enjoy. But that, perhaps, is the point. As Ron the barman concludes, “Perhaps I should have chosen another road – but it’s too late now.” You can be sure that Cyril and Toby, and many others like them, will be back in the bar tomorrow, with or without other customers.
Live Theatre comes to Gearin Hotel
At first the thought of theatre amid the clamour of bistro meals, pints of lager and loud pub chatter seems like a clash of cultures, but for the Anvil Creek Theatre company it's a match made in heaven.
The three-man show,The Exchange, was written by Phillip Aughey, a Tamworth man born and bred in the bush with a "fascination for absurdist theatre", an interest in the outback and a deep understanding of the importance pubs play in rural communities. The play, set in a fictitious outback bar, is a popular hit in real pubs across NSW - and promises soon to be in the Queensland bush as well.
Raised on a rice farm at Warrawidgee, west of Griffith, Philip was bitten by the theatre bug at 17 while a student at Yanco Agricultural High School. While a speech impediment affected earlier attempts to shine on stage, his musical and acting abilities scored him a high school role in HMAS Pinafore - and while in character and on stage, the stutter departed.
At university in Bathurst, a growing interest in theatre prompted a switch from a business to a communications degree, leaving him time to explore directing. This, in turn, led to development of his script for The Exchange while working as a thoroughbred stud strapper.
The script draws on experience as a bush roustabout and strapper, focusing on country personalities and the influence of pubs as community hubs. The idea for The Exchange was developed from the early 1980's, evolving slowly to its final form in November 2001, and touring the state since then - bringing the story of a barman and two of his regulars to hundreds of enthusiastic real-life pub patrons.
While others in the three-man cast have changed through time, Phillip continues to play the role of Cyril, one of the locals in an outback pub.
Audiences vary, but Phillip says the preference is "to stage it in smaller communities."
"It gives them something to do, adds to the community spirit and makes the publican a bob or two.
One notable performance was in Bigga, about four years ago where, from a population of about 45, somehow 55 managed to turn up.
Phillip said the best part for him was talking to "one of the blokes after the show."
"He said a lot of people in the town, which was deep in drought, were in deep depression. He thanked me for making it an enjoyable night."
Phillip said the knowledge that The Exchange had provided relief in a really tough time, and perhaps brought hope, was amazing.
While preparing for the northern foray, he is working on a new play, developing a screen play, writing a children's novel and working as a horse chiropractor.
The Exchange will be staged in pubs across Queensland next year.
Authentic charmer returns
It is easy to see while watching The Exchange why writer-director Phillip Aughey's comedy about two retired country blokes who spend their days drinking in a small-town pub has been an audience-pleaser for a decade.
Loquacious ex-shearer Toby and quieter former boundary rider Cyril turn virtually all the topics in their conversations, from mice plagues to rainfall and vague memories of people they once knew, into amusing arguments that have the ring of truth. Young barman Ron, still viewed as a newcomer to the town after 12 months, listens to their wrangling and tries to resolve their frequent arguments as to whose shout it is, and occasionally falls deep in thought about his own, unstated problems.
I first saw The Exchange in a hotel lounge nine years ago and it has lost none of its charm or truth. The Newcastle Playhouse season is its first in a theatre auditorium after more than 100 pub and club performances and it is just as engaging in a formal theatre space.
The sparks fly between Brad Burgess's Toby and Aughey's Cyril, and Matt McFarlane's introspective Ron has those watching wondering what is going through his mind as he patiently puts up with the two geezers' antics. Leof Kingsford-Smith is Toby and Greg Gorton is Ron at some performances.
A bloke walks into a pub . . .
PHILLIP Aughey's play The Exchange will move into new territory when it begins a season at Newcastle's Playhouse on March 15.
Since The Exchange had its premiere at Branxton's Royal Federal Hotel in November 2001, it has primarily played in pubs and clubs.
While many of the performances have been one-night stands in country town pubs, even its 22-performance sell-out season at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2004 was in a hotel.
And when it was staged in Sydney's Newtown Theatre in 2005, the actors performed in the bar area at the front of the theatre.
The Newcastle Playhouse season will see The Exchange performed in a 200-seat auditorium.
But the intimacy of the venue will allow those watching to enjoy the antics of the play's two old-timers who are the only customers in a country pub called The Exchange somewhere in the middle of nowhere on a Saturday afternoon.
The retired men, former boundary rider Cyril and one-time shearer Toby, drink, argue and joke as they wait for night to come, with both expecting something big to happen in the pub as darkness falls.
The bored young barman, Ron, eavesdrops on their conversations and occasionally voices an opinion - not that it's always welcome. Phil Aughey, a former Branxton resident who moved late last year to Tamworth, based the play on his experiences working in his early 20s in 1981 as a shearing shed roustabout near a small Queensland town called Muttaburra.
The farm workers headed to the Muttaburra pub on Saturdays but for most of the rest of the week there was just a handful of regulars in the bar.
Aughey wrote the play's first draft in the late 1980s and a 1991 reading of a later version at Sydney's Griffin Theatre - a venue which specialises in Australian works - so impressed the theatre's artistic director that he planned to include it in his 1992 program.
However, a new artistic director was appointed and he opted for a different set of plays. The play's eventual premiere at the Branxton Royal Federal Hotel in 2001 developed from a conversation Aughey had with the publican about dinner theatre shows.
The play, staged by Anvil Creek Theatre, a company established by Aughey, was so popular that the planned season of three performances grew into nine.
The following year, it had seasons at several Hunter venues, including the Commonwealth Hotel at Cooks Hill. It has now played 108 performances, predominantly with Hunter actors.
The Newcastle Playhouse season has eight shows between March 15 and 20, with the schedule after that including a performance at Murrurundi's White Hart Hotel on March 24 and a planned tour of Murray River townships in April.
There is no end to the play's life in sight. Aughey attributes the play's success to three things. It is decidedly Australian in setting and mood; audiences relate to the characters readily; and it is very funny. He could have added a fourth attribute.
His writing and direction have made the ordinary extraordinary. The two old-timers might spend their days talking about nothing that's weighty but audiences come away thinking about the things their conversations touch on: friendship, loneliness, getting old and thinking young.
Phil Aughey plays Cyril. The role of his sparring partner, Toby, will be played at different performances at the Playhouse by Brad Burgess and Leof Kingsford-Smith, with Greg Gorton and Matt McFarlane alternating as barman Ron.
It is decidedly Australian in setting and mood; audiences relate to the characters readily; and it is very funny.
As Australians, were all-too-familiar with the myth: though the overwhelming majority of us live on the fertile coastal fringe, in congested cities, many of us were milk fed the laconic, clear air of the outback.
The Exchange by Phil Aughey, has just wrapped up, in the foyer of Newtown Theatre; converted, for the purpose, quite convincingly, into a veritable bush pub. Newtown is far from the back o' Bourke, let alone beyond the black slump, yet we're effectively transported to the middle-of-bloody-nowhere (well, Muttaburra, if you must know, or if it makes any difference!), as three blokes many of us are bound to recognise, take to the stage, and the bar, for a comedy drier than a dead dingo's donger!
An astute chide leaned over and murmured, "It's the antipodean Waiting for Godot", or words to that effect, as if to take the words right out of my mouth! Nothing ever happens here, and it'd be a bleedin' travesty if it did!
There's something at once consoling and terrifying about the abject lack of happenings in the nondescript nothing-town we inhabit, at least for the duration of the performance. This is no town and everytown; nowhere and everywhere you've ever been, in this wide, brown, unforgiving land. And this is a well-travelled play, having toured over 20 country venues (75 sell-out performances, from Branxton to Bourke, Geuri to Griffith, Walgett, to Wee Waa!) and what is, arguably, also Australia's premiere arts event, the Adelaide festival, it's a pity the Sydney preview season had to be so limited.
A baggy-faced, retired shearer, a semi-lane ringer and a lonely, but resigned, young barman have come to rightly expect never-ending nothingness, they are the last word in living, breathing existentialism! Putting-up a few Streamers and a modicum of confusion about invitations and arrivals, though, invites expectation that this Saturday night might bring surprise. It doesn't, of course, which, again isn't so much disappointing, as strangely reassuring.
The characters are instantly identifiable, it's as if we've all not only met them, but know them, well, even if weve never, actually, met them; we might recognize them from the pub, railway-station, park-bench, or a Henry Lawson poem; it's almost as if they could be members of our own family, they ring with such familiarity!
The premise, and script, is, of course, quintessentially, self-deprecatingly and, thus, charmingly, heart-warmingly, incorrigibly, unmistakably, unavoidably 'Aussie', hawing started life in the Royal Federal Hotel, Branxton, three years ago and having toured rural town and country pubs and clubs, much as the old shearers it so redolently portrays would've.
Writer (and director!) Phil Aughey, who also acts in the piece, alongside Gary McLean and Brad Burgess, is a communications graduate, from Charles Start University; yet these credentials are as nothing, against the backdrop of his growing-up, on a farm, outside Griffith, on the NSW Hay Plain. Aughey proves to be the dinky-di article, in the aforementioned roles, but also as a former shearer himself, he drove 'round Australia, in 1981, and claims to have met the people that inhabit his story. There's no doubting it! Even if pure invention, these blokes are palpably real! Little wonder The Exchange has been so enthusiastically received, in dozens of venues, right around the state, and in 22 packed-to-the-rafters performances at the Adelaide Festival alone! We can but hope for a full return season, for us mob, out here, precariously positioned on the edge of this reality?
Lets hope so!
Review Thurs 13 Oct 2005 Triple-r fm 88.5 rude, radical radio. Well ,ryde regional. By Braddo; presenter - Braddo’s Brekky Serial, 6-8 Thursdays, the antidote to Alan Jones.
The Exchange Hotel
'The Exchange Hotel' is a play in two acts written by Phillip Aughey. It began its Sydney run at the Palace Hotel at Mortlake on Wednesday 12 June and will play there again on these Wednesdays: 26 June, 3 July, 10 July and 17 July.
The play involves three characters and is set in the bar of a far western country hotel. Two retired rural workers, Cyril, played by Phillip Aughey and Toby, played by Wayne Van Keren, meet, talk, reminisce, argue and drink, whiling away the time in a town where there is nothing else to do. They are served by the pub's only employee Ron, played by Jonathon Poynter. Ron is mainly tolerant towards Cyril and Toby, finally realizing that he too has nothing much to do and nowhere much to go. This is the realisation and ultimately the bond he shares with his argumentative patrons. They are all waiting in the expectation of finding nothing. In that sense, the play has a lot of elements of Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'.
The dialogue presents an accurate and sympathetic understanding of the situation and is spiced with rye humour. All conversations are punctuated with a discussion about who's turn it is to buy the next drink. The play is comic yet, at the same time, tragic and thus in the best traditions of comic theatre It is universal in that it deals with life trailing away as senility or death looms large. The actors Jonathon Poynter and Wayne Van Keren are NIDA trained while Phillip Aughey, the author and also the smelly, untidy, urine-stained character Cyril, has a degree with a major in Theatre. The acting is convincing and the delivery clear, skilfully encapsulating the spoken and philosophical idiom of a bush pub.
The play itself is worth going to the Palace Hotel. However it is only part of the package that provides a three course meal served in a room with real character. The cost is $45 per head. Dinner is enjoyed from 7 o'clock and the play begins about 8. Sweets are served between the two acts. Sue and Steve’s Ginty's Palace Hotel at Mortlake also has another surprise for patrons. It has one of the best selections of wines available in Sydney and these can be purchased in the Bistro at bottle department prices.
Finally, on two future play nights, there will be a wine tasting before dinner. On Wednesday 26 June, Hunter Valley whites and reds will be surveyed. Then on 10 July, wines from Tintilla Vineyard, also in the Hunter, will be available for tasting. Tintilla wines are made under the watchful eye of Professor Bob Lusby, Head of Sydney University’s Clinical Unit at Concord Hospital. You probably didn't realise that Mortlake has a cultural underbelly. Which is as close to an outback pub as you can get without leaving the parklands. The price of admission includes a two course meal and you are quickly served a lovely Caesar salad. Then the trio of actors transports you to the pub of a dusty town "somewhere in the middle of nowhere".
Review by Gregory Blaxell