Urban Display Suite

Sarah Braybrooke

MTC Theatre: With sing-along fun, Urban Design Suite is a witty comedy of manners and an incisive satire on the Melbourne property boom and the real estate industry in general.
Urban Display Suite
There will be moments watching Urban Display Suite when you will feel uncomfortable. You may even shudder. And when you do, it won't be because of any flaws in Michael Dalley's 'real estate musical spectacular', it will be because of his wicked genius for capturing our own failings. All the worst traits of smug, superficial first-world living are on display in his tightly-written musical, brought to us by some very funny and disturbingly familiar characters.

It opens with a dig at estate agents, in a rousing number that describes their work as “the white-collar job for the blue-collar brain”. After laughing at this, along with a catalogue of McMansion design crimes, you could be forgiven for thinking the evening will progress with more safe laughs at the expense of realtors and bogans. But soon it becomes clear that nobody is off limits to Dalley, and the arrows of his satire only get sharper and more accurate as the production progresses, taking in everyone from fauxhemian yuppies to the rapacious, dinner-party obsessed middle classes.

The characters in Urban Display Suite have sacrificed any sense of community for the lure of materialist individualism, evoking both the alienation of the city and the ennui of the suburbs. Dalley plays an isolated luxury tower-block dweller who fantasises about being noticed by his neighbours. I won't give away the details of his scheme to do this, save to say that you may not be able to eat at Subway ever again.

In the painfully real 'Display Village Queen', Sharon Davis is nondescript suburbanite Narelle, hooked on the escapism that an aspirational display home offers. It shows the brokenness of an urban landscape in which everyone lives that mythical '40 minutes away from the city' in poorly-constructed, un-fillably huge houses: Narelle dreams of a house with a rumpus room ... but has no rumpus to fill it.

The musical sardonically explores the fault lines along which class prejudices run in 21st century Australia: an unappealing conflation of modern-day hard cash and old-time pretensions to refinement. According to Urban Display Suite anyone can get rich in today's property market, but money still can't buy taste; you can decorate your home in off-white and expensive aboriginal art, but inside you'll still long to shop at Franco Cozzo.

The songs are the engine of the show, pushing the action along at a rapid pace. There's no plot, and apart from one stand-out Western number the music mainly serves as a backdrop to the spot-on writing, with a piano score performed onstage by John Thorn. Between songs the estate agents' dialogue is hilariously real – a beige tapestry of industry clichés and jargon. Performances are strong; Lyall Brooks and Gabrielle Quin in particular show great comic timing, Brooks with an officiousness reminiscent of David Brent and Quinn with a predatory archness. Perhaps the only weak element is that the cast's singing is a little inconsistent, occasionally sounding thin.

Although Urban Display Suite takes the Melbourne property boom as its theme, the issues it plays on run far deeper than housing. In it property ownership is a nexus of material greed and class posturing that reflects the perennial question of any society: what it means to have status. Underlying the sing-along fun, Urban Design Suite is a witty comedy of manners and an incisive satire.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

High Performance Company presents
Urban Design Suite
Written by Michael Dalley
Music: John Thorn & Michael Dalley
Cast: Lyall Brooks, Michael Dalley, Sharon Davis, Gabrielle Quin

Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre
140 Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Playing until Saturday January 21, 2012
Bookings: www.urbandisplaysuite.com

Below: Footage from the season in May 2011 at 45 Downstairs. The current production features a new set, lighting design, choreography and four new songs.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Braybrooke works in publishing in Melbourne. Originally from London, she has lived in Italy and the Middle East, and written reviews and articles for a number of publications.