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Jeanette Cronin, Aimee Horne and Charlie Garber. Photo: Alex Vaughan

Jeanette Cronin and Aimee Horne. Photo: Alex Vaughan

POSTED: 12 SEPTEMBER 2010

Quack, by Ian Wilding

Griffin Theatre Company | Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 2 Oct

When my editor emailed me about this play, he used its title as the subject line, then opened the message with: “That got your attention, didn’t it?”

Sure did. My curiosity was piqued, and I went straight to Griffin’s website to find more on this play about ducks.

Turns out, the only duck in Quack is the action you might have to perform if you sit in the front row. These “quacks” are of the old-fashioned, doctor variety, using their particularly bizarre techniques to rid a town of a terrible sickness.

Ol’ Doc Littlewood (Chris Haywood) performs excruciating “reverse orchiectomies” (look that one up, fellas, and squirm). The new kid in town, Dr Waterman (Charlie Garber), extols the wonders of his Zenith Water.

As the illness spreads, it becomes evident that neither approach is helping much. In fact, the sick have started devouring the as-yet-unafflicted ... and it ain’t pretty.

Young Fanny (Aimee Horne) was desperate to leave the stultifying town even before being eaten alive was a possibility. Her guardian, Nancy (Jeanette Cronin), believes Fanny’s desire to embrace life beyond the town is indicative of illness, and seeks Dr Waterman’s help.

Ian Wilding’s Quack is certainly unique. Set in an outback town some time in the late 1800s, Quack is described as: “A romantic, historical western drama noir exploitation comedy. With zombies.”

There’s also an undercurrent of political comment for our time, where morality is muddied by hubris, a sense of community is tangled up in fear of the “other”, and the single-minded desire for “quick fixes” to complex issues inevitably leads to disappointment, disaster or stagnancy.

The political subtext becomes more obvious in the second act, until it’s about as subtle as the explosive gushes of mucus from Chris Haywood’s nose.

How well this play will age I’m not sure. The impact of some of the lines may fade with time, although when Doc Littlewood bleats about being “relaxed and comfortable” I still experience a frisson of fear.

Chris Mead’s production is ambitious in so many ways. The stage design is remarkable, striking and crazy. The sound and lighting is subtle but powerful — especially once you realize that the increasingly noticeable background noise comprises groans, screams and general chaos. The use of music is also inspired, and Horne’s beautiful, pure singing voice is mesmerizing.

The requirements of the actors are incredible, with Cronin and Horne not only doubling up roles at speed, but also changing gender as they go. All four actors are spot on. Charlie Garber is the consummate period actor, with excellent comic timing and intonation. When Nancy pleads, “Is an embrace too much?” the delivery of his response — “Not in this light” — was utterly perfect.

There really is nothing quite like Quack. If the thought of gore, zombies and axe-wielding albinos is not your usual idea of a night at the theatre, but an appreciation of innovation, potential and creativity is, then this is well worth a look.

We have a bit of a ritual when we attend a Stables production. After the show, we wander round to WowCow on Darlinghurst Road for one of the best soft-serve yogurts around. I’d highly recommend this, but if you go and see Quack — which I also highly recommend — you may want to enjoy your yogurt prior to the show. Or at least, choose your toppings mindfully. The strawberry coulis might have to wait for another time.