It seems a tough ask to squeeze a 19th century French novel onto a little pub stage at the Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo and give it a contemporary twist. Why not just start afresh and write your own play?
No doubt seduced by being in a Paris studio on a writer’s residency, playwright Justin Fleming has adapted Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur Des Dames for this welcome theatrical debut by a group, Parnassus Den, which has spent recent years devoted to script readings. The result is an inventive and colourful melodrama about a little draper being literally squeezed out of business by the unstoppable force of the neighbouring department store. Paradise caters to every female retail whim.
Across its counters, the elegant rascal Octave Mouret (Christopher Tomkinson) seduces his women with his cheaper goods and with each handsome twitch of his pencil moustache. He meets his own unstoppable force in the guise of the draper’s provincial niece. Denise (Isabella Dunwill) is forced to work at Paradise but she steals Mouret’s heart -“ without surrendering her virtue -“ and transforms his capitalist empire into a socialist paradise for her co-workers. And with that nod to the issues of industrial relations and corporate takeovers, that’s about it for a contemporary twist.
The Department Store though is a lot of fun, elevated by a tight ensemble of actors all finding their own truth of character but with heightened performances pitched to the same mad level. A continuous underscore from piano and violin (and composer Sarah de Jong) reminds us that this is about the surface delights of melodrama. Jonathan Hardy as the inexplicably stubborn draper, refusing all offers for his ancient shop, adds a bulky gravitas to the show. And with imaginative theatrical trickery, director Christopher Hurrell exploits every inch of his two-levelled stage, dressed as a treasure trove of female satins and attire.
Fleming’s script creates a sparkling narrative and captures the florid excesses of the women lured into the retail clutches of Paradise. However, the humour of the production, at least initially, rests more on the wit of the director than the writer. The 19th century setting and values, as well as the imperatives of melodrama, freeze out any meaningful conclusions on contemporary issues. But it makes a rich canvas for a joyous souffl?f a production. Parnassus Den is yet more evidence of the theatrical invention now apparent in Sydney’s independent theatre sector.
The Department Store runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until 19 November.