the appeal of The Trouble with Harry is the poetic ear and alien eye that Sydney playwright Lachlan Philpott brings to his true-crime story
The Trouble with Harry | Review
Chris Boyd | The Australian
20 Oct, 2014
A touch of Patrick White in Lachlan Philpott’s play about Harry Crawford
IT’S fairly easy to track the influence Patrick White has had on fiction writing in Australia but far less simple to spot his influence on playwriting here. Or, indeed, to discern if White has had any influence on Australian drama whatsoever. For 60 years, White’s peculiar style of drama has seemed like an evolutionary dead-end.
A significant part of the appeal of The Trouble with Harry is the poetic ear and alien eye that Sydney playwright Lachlan Philpott brings to his true-crime story. They’re unmistakably White-like.
Philpott’s play about Harry Crawford, who was convicted of the murder of his wife Annie in the early 1920s, is a poetic fugue for voices. The language is heightened without being self-conscious or arch. Philpott’s easy use of a louse-ridden bantam hen (which turns out to be a rooster) as a device is as effective as the bitch-on-heat motif in White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla.
His account of working-class life circa 1917 has a cool and non-judgemental curiosity. It’s not detached exactly — there’s a lenient fascination that looks a little like envy — but it’s anthropological somehow.
Crawford was Italian, and female, by birth. Born Eugenia Falleni, Harry lived as a man for years, marrying at least twice. According to a recent account penned by barrister Mark Tedeschi, Crawford’s wives were unaware that he wasn’t all that he purported to be. Harry apparently used “something artificial” — with “a strap” — to pleasure his wives.
In Philpott’s play, Annie Birkett is aware of the deceit and complicit in it, too. She and Crawford live as a respectable working-class family, with Annie’s son, in a nosy neighbourhood. There are also hints in the play that Annie might be lesbian. She coldly observes that Frank doesn’t have any difficulty finding women like her.
Though beautifully set (Eugyeene Teh), staged (Alyson Campbell) and acted (Maude Davey in the title role, with Caroline Lee, Elizabeth Nabben and others), this MKA production is sabotaged by the decision to mic-up each actor and transmit the voices to audience members via cordless headphones.
While the technology adds intimacy, especially in the quieter conversational moments, the sound quality at its very best is unremarkable. At its worst, it’s barely adequate. The sound is boxy and muffled. There’s no discernible stereo separation or anything resembling a sound image, and that fatally undermines the spaciousness of the staging and the clear delineation between characters.