Author and playwright Barry Oakley.

Richard Piper stars in Music.

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Barry Oakley
Until December 22

MELODRAMA has become a byword for defective or implausible drama. It's false snobbery. The term originally referred to 18th-century acting set to music and the form is as bound up with the history of opera as it is with TV soaps.

Barry Oakley's Music carries within it a trace of this rich legacy. Despite occasional false notes, it's a superior example of what can be achieved when character is generated by plot rather than the other way around.

Jack (Richard Piper) is a retired academic, recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. He spends his final days with his concert pianist wife, Margie (Janet Andrewartha), his estranged brother, a Catholic priest (Robert Menzies) and his doctor (Paul English).

All four have dark secrets, and in the spin cycle of Jack's terminal illness their dirty laundry comes out.

The backstory is intricate - a blackly humorous accumulation of repression and regret - and the tone tragicomic, the play's sombreness at once alleviated and intensified by the scale of its unburdening.

After initial wobbles, Aidan Fennessy's direction finds its feet through operatic staging and a poised performance style.

Piper has an affinity for literary roues, and his performance here recalls his memorable turn in Hannie Rayson's Life After George, where he played a similar figure.

Piper's Jack is an utterly credible former English academic, with a spiky intelligence that dances around his impending mortality through sardonic put-downs. Yet the most affecting moments are his quiet scenes with Menzies.

Andrewartha's Margie excels in the emotionally distant relationship with her husband, and in embodying patterns of spousal avoidance and the toll of caring for the dying. Unfortunately, script, direction and performances fall short in describing what happens between Margie and Jack's doctor.

This kind of relationship is commonly misunderstood even by participants and the play doesn't do enough to demystify it.

It's still entertaining and emotionally involving, with more wit and sensitivity than most. And it achieves the catharsis it seeks, using the imminence of death to show how lonely the fear of life can make us.