It’s been a big year for locally developed musicals here in Canberra with new big budget productions Heart of a Dog and Winging my Way to the Top already done and dusted. But the year’s not over yet and plucky underdog The Rokitelly Man opens this week. An original musical with script by Michael Hemming with music by Andrew Hackwill, The Rokitelly Man takes us back to 60s for a story of what it takes to succeed in business: the toy business, that is. Director Richard Block and the cast sat down with the RiotACT and gave us the inside scoop on a quirky new show.
The Rokitelly is a toy robot, and the Man of the Rokitelly is Jeremy (Miles Thompson), a likeable young inventor with big dreams but no confidence. The toy company he works for is faltering – it turns out that somehow their new line of Nagging Nancy dolls hasn’t been the hit they expected. The Rokitelly is just the wiz-bang new toy that might save the company. However the company is run by the formidable Mrs. Pembleton (Deborah Byrne), a woman described as a combination of “Magda Szubanski, Mrs. Slokum from Are You Being Served and Cruella De Vil”. Jeremy is a guy with a bright idea but as many inventors discover, he might not be able to control what other people do with that idea…
Richard Block was also director on Canberra Philo’s production of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying”. Remembering the cynical slant he gave that show, I asked him whether he was attracted to The Rokitelly Man because he wants to expose the predatory business world. He answered instead that what really attracted him to the show was the character of Jeremy. Jeremy is a visionary and dreamer but doesn’t know what to do with his ideas. Richard says he can remember what that felt like and hopes that other people will be able to relate to the guy who “has ideas but isn’t sure what they want to do in life.” Miles Thompson, the actor playing Jeremy, agreed that he’s a “very human” character, with not only creativity but a lot of shyness and anxiety. He finds his mirror image in receptionist Cindy (Alex MacPherson). Cindy is just as shy but recognises Jeremy’s hidden talent and encourages him to be all he can be. Jeremy reciprocates by supporting her singing career, and together they help each other find confidence and success.
Putting together any new show is a massive undertaking and the problems multiply when that show is also a musical. But there’s clearly a lot of heart here – this is a passion project and the director, cast and crew are determined to make it great show despite a shoestring budget. As every artist knows, limitations just mean you have to find creative solutions. The set here is decorated with period toys sourced by the cast and crew from their own communities: everyone is chipping in to make the show work. That’s a spirit that’s worth supporting.
Many musicals here in Canberra are essentially cover versions of successful runs by professionals – a reliable brand faithfully recreated, sometimes even down to the costumes and blocking. The team behind The Rokitelly Man are trying to make something new, and kudos to them for taking the risk. The show only has a two-week run and will depend strongly on word-of-mouth to be a success. This is a home-grown musical, and I say we do the Australian thing and give it a fair go. After all, you might be able to say “I was there when it all began.”