The Local – Did your local pub need its upgrade? (Theatre Review)

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The Local

Exchange Hotel, Insomniac Theatre Company

March 8 – 20. You can grab your tickets here. 

Image – GiGee Photography

It was a moment of realisation for me when I discovered the strange faux 1970’s style aesthetics of Australian clubs, that seem enhanced with each interior decorating upgrade, were deliberate and designed to appeal to the regular patrons. I am not a “club” person, so why tailor the aesthetics of clubs to suit me? I’m an inner West café/bar/restaurant patron, responding to dark wood and chalk board menus. There are times when I like to pop into a “local” that doesn’t tailor to me, but the point is, the difference matters and its important the club or pub respect its patrons and remain true to them. According to sociologist Ray Oldenburg, one of the uncelebrated hallmarks of a free thinking society is this civic space, what he has called the “third space” after home (first) and work (second). The place where people gather to date, meet friends, hang out and grab a coffee, meal or beer is as important to democracy as the independent press or the impartial judiciary. This Third Space is a relief from the serious pressures of work and the emotional expectations and dependencies of home. It must be informal, it must be within walking distance and above all else, it promotes social equity because it honours the individuals right to civic space. According to Oldenburg, “in the absence of informal public life, living becomes more expensive. Where the means and facilities for relaxation and leisure are not publicly shared, they become the objects of private ownership and consumption.”

And this is where Richie Blacks marvellous new Aussie play The Local steps in. Above all else, The Local examines the right of regulars to complain if their local pub decides to gentrify – as so many pubs in the inner parts of Sydney are doing. Do the regulars have a bona fide complaint if the pub they’d always attended transforms itself in order to gain not just more patrons but patrons with more money? The Local involves itself with genuine questions regarding the democratic right of ownership where civic space meets capitalist enterprise, such as the disenfranchised response of spurned regulars that can lend itself to sabotage and public declarations of hatred for any new patrons. How essential and important and worth fighting for is The Local? Can Hipster Wankers be a gift and enhance an environment, or must they be unceremoniously marched out-of-town? Or worse. What if your newly revamped local doesn’t attract the hipsters and artists? What if it attracts semi-successful real estate agents and the spillover of the Randwick Racecourse crowd? What do you do then?

The Local isn’t just a place to grab a beer with friends. It’s a place to gather inexpensively, regularly and pleasurably; a real life alternative to television and social media, that offers an antidote to the escalating seriousness of family and work. It is a playful response to the hyper experience of modern life. Although different to a home, this space is like a home in that it provides a social amenity that allows people to see themselves as comforted and supported. But instead of nurturing this environment, the local in The Local has moved in the opposite direction, turning patrons into paying customers and replacing sincerity and integrity for ambition and growth. Buisnesses’ don’t always need to grow with consumptive ferocity like a Westfields. Sometimes they can be used to support a lifestyle, and in the case of The Local, they can support a multitude of lifestyles and hold a special place in a democracy.

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Insomnia Theatre Company have created a local play, inside a local pub (that has managed to maintain its integrity and its passion for new and vibrant experience) by a local theatre company that speaks with a strength beyond the plays subject matter to the importance of local art. Director Maggie Scott this way, extends the idea of The Local as a democratic space far beyond the right of men to gather after a day spent winning by default on the cricket field. Under Scotts wise and informed direction The Local becomes about the importance of local and relevant works, and about the essential nature of making and providing work for our creatives. This is the democratic ideal, when folk work together at the community level to make something special happen that wouldn’t have happened without their mutual involvement. By watching The Local, in a local, performed by a local theatre company, once gets a sense of the importance of civic space and the right we have to enjoy each others company in the public places we not only pay for but need in order to enhance our connection to our own humanity.

She is supported by a wonderful cast, particularly in Jamie Collette and Steve Maresca, one of whom can adapt and change with the transformation of his local (or can he?) and the other who decides to fight for a culture he sees dying around him. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance then not recognising the importance of and our right to public spaces that support us is part of being asleep at the wheel. But how does one recognise the difference between the erosion of culture and life’s unrelenting progress and natural transformation? Where Collette wants to adapt (particularly when a pretty girl catches his eye) Maresca wants to fight for something important that could be lost forever, and both questions are given equal weight in this interesting play. Above all else, Richie Black writes witty one-liners that find their way to magic punch lines and these are delivered with wit and warmth by Maggie Scotts cast.

If these two friends embody the difficult decisions the play poses, then the rest of the cast represent their antagonists. Andrew Mead is a fine publican perpetually caught between recognition his pub isn’t his alone and the drive to make a business profitable. Cecilia Morrow and Michael Wood are the interlopers, the new breed, the folk attracted by the businesses refurbishment. Inside themselves they are the good news and the bad, posing different challenges for the men who need and love the public space as it was. Located in the Exchange Hotel in Balmain, the questions of what a pub really is and what it owes its patrons is made delightfully clear in this lovely play. Attend in a group, eat before hand, and argue into the small hours after. Go see The Local and celebrate the right to engage in civic space.

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