At first blush, an aged care home seems an unlikely place for a musical. How could this Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) premiere possibly compete with the high-energy, technicolour extravaganzas of musical theatre that have opened recently in Melbourne like & Juliet or even Midnight?
Remember too that a 2021 royal commission report recommended an overhaul of the aged care industry, given its history of abuse and neglect, and its dereliction of the actual principles of care, respect and dignity. Anyone would think that a musical harnessing this fraught topic would be more depressing and untoward than entertaining.
Fortunately such fears are ill-founded because its not so secret weapon is that Bloom was written by screenwriter, TV host and filmmaker Tom Gleisner. Probably best known for being the co-creator of movie hits like The Castle and TV shows like Utopia, Gleisner’s foray into musical writing is only a little surprising. For, despite the initially unprepossessing setting, Bloom unfurls into a multifaceted exploration of institutional living, the grimness of which is offset both by Gleisner’s characteristic humour and by the musical composition of Katie Weston.
Like a stone thrown into a stagnant pond, the catalyst is Finn (Slone Sudiro), a uni music student whose lack of funds sees him become a resident of Pine Grove, in exchange for board and domestic duties, even though he has no experience in elderly care. He initially meets one of its recalcitrant new residents, Rose (Evelyn Krape) whose hair and clothing are as fiery as her namesake. Rose likens the experience of submitting to respite care as facing ‘life without parole’ and queries why Finn would want to move in with a ‘bunch of geriatrics’. Unlike the others, who have cowed under the system for too long, and whose demeanour is as dour as their drab clothing, Rose is sparky and spiky.
The two form a strong bond as Finn learns about the operational maze of of Pine Grove and sees how its residents (or “inmates” as Rose would have it) navigate within its confines. There are the two harried workers, Ruby (Vidya Makan) and Gloria (Christina O’Neill), who do their best to care despite constant cost-cutting measures. Among the eclectic residents are gruff handyman, Doug (Frankie J Holden), artist Leslie (Jackie Rees), kleptomaniac Betty (Maria Mercedes), pompous former thespian Roland (John O’May) and non-verbal Sal (Eddie Muliaumaseali’I).
Finn’s appearance upsets the smooth modus operandi of the facility and, together with the rebellious (just run with scissors!) Rose, he is instrumental in causing an uprising that involves a runaway bus. The two-hour, no-interval storyline moves quickly and also manages to incorporate some romantic diversions and a choir finale as well.
With its appropriately infantilising baby blue and tan colour code engineered by set designer Dann Barber, Pine Grove perfectly captures the bland, anodyne qualities of any aged care facility, as the residents go about their day doing a range of non-taxing indoor activities like embroidery and craft, and waiting for a rare outside excursion. The furniture and decor are high on functionality and low on aesthetics. Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting is suitably low-key, while costuming by Charlotte Lane keeps everything naturalistic, with the occasional embellishment – Roland, the erstwhile actor, wears a jaunty beret, for instance.
Looming over all the residents is Mrs MacIntyre (Anne Edmonds) the manager, who is as patronising as she is mean. It’s here that Gleisner has the most satirical fun, with Edmonds playing her role as though she were a flamboyant cousin of Nurse Ratched or who’s maybe once removed from Miss Trunchbull.
There’s a malicious glee in which she constantly announces funding cuts to the centre’s menu, outings and activities – basically everything that will bring a spark of joy or leaven the boredom. She is the monstrous foil against which everyone fights and her cartoonish behaviour provides a lot of the laughs. But using her as a pantomime figurehead for the endemic mismanagement of aged care is an easy way to deflect from all the other problems within the area. After all, the lack of funds to the sector remain beyond her jurisdiction.
Bloom is very much an ensemble piece and, with the musical nous of Weston and under the brisk direction of Dean Bryant – who also directed the musical Fun Home – each actor performs (and sings) with such individual flair and a uniting force that it’s unfair to single any of them out for praise. The entire cast are talented alumni of musical theatre, and are well capable of servicing the music and lyrics by Weston and Gleisner. The songs themselves further the narrative effectively, without merely being stand-alone numbers sung out of context. There are even some light dance works choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth – which adds to the merriment.
Tonally the production is many hued, and successfully prompts all kinds of audience emotions: from anger and disbelief, to sadness, to joy and relief. Occasionally, it can feel a little bit mawkish but such sentimentality is forgiven, as there’s no lingering indulgence to exploit that. It’s a fast-moving show with many scene changes.
It’s a play about oppositional, binary forces: young and old, vulnerability and control, care and neglect. It’s about the gaps between what is promoted (“you may be olden, but our care is golden”) and the actual exploitative, bullying environment of tinned soup and lack of natural sunlight.
Most touchingly – and this is where the musical play works particularly – Gleisner’s script enables us to see each of Pine Grove’s residents with a back story. They are granted time to tell us, in song, who they were before they were reduced to eking out the rest of the lives in a communal facility, without family and under the administration of strangers. This gap, between who they once were in their robust, blood-vibrant years and what they are now, in their reduced and frail circumstances, is both poignantly and powerfully wrought.
But this is a feel-good musical and there are typical comedy theatre tropes to consider and facilitate. Gleisner does not particularly suggest any answers to the whole messy politics of aged care in Australia – except to highlight the need for the respectful, empathetic handling of the residents instead of treating them as troublesome, societal burdens who just need medication and soft food to see out their days. His remit is to offer hope and laughs, and that he does. It’s no spoiling surprise to say that while it opens in tones of grey resignation and monotony, Bloom concludes big-heartedly in many petals of colour and song.
Bloom by Tom Gleisner
Arts Centre Melbourne, MTC
Director: Dean Bryant
Assistant Director: Tasnim Hossain
Composer: Katie Weston
Music Director/Arranger/Orchestrator: Zara Stanton
Set Designer: Dann Barber
Choreographer: Andrew Hallsworth
Lighting Designer: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Sound Designer: Nick Walker
Costume Designer: Charlotte Lane
Dramaturgs: Matt Edgerton and Jennifer Medway
Voice and text coach: Matt Furlani
Cast: Anne Edmonds, Frankie J Holden, Evelyn Krape, Vidya Makan, Maria Mercedes, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, John O’May, Christina O’Neill, Jackie Rees, Slone Sudiro.
Bloom will be performed until 19 August 2023.