Bloom is a very thoughtful musical that takes a little while to find its feet. But when it does, it’s mesmerizing.
Perhaps I should start with a disclaimer that I have spent recent years caring for my mother in one aged care facility and my aunt in another. And both places were excellent – so much so that I now volunteer once a week in one of those facilities because I want to be part of the life there and it’s a good place.
So at first I wasn’t keen on the seeming caricatures of older residents and felt uncomfortable noting the shortcomings and extreme staff shortages and endless budget cuts from the hard-hearted manager. But this is theatre, and I have no doubt there are less salubrious places than the ones with which I am involved.
But back to the musical in question. Initially, we are introduced to the ageing residents of Pine Grove, an aged care home with a brilliant marketing pitch that doesn’t ring true once we see how few staff there are and how programs are being cut for budgetary considerations. In an attempt to get more help, “Bloom” advertises free bed and board for a volunteer to come and live in, in exchange for light duties with the residents.
So, in comes uni music student Finn (Sloan Sudiro) who doesn’t have a clue about what he is in for. But he soon finds out and, coincidentally, he arrives at the same time as feisty new resident Rose (Evelyn Krape), who is scathing about Pine Grove and rebelling against circumstances that have brought her there to live. It’s a tour de force by Evelyn Krape, and librettist Tom Gleisner has given her so many witty exchanges, which Krape delivers with aplomb. The other residents range from slightly confused former performer Roland (John O’May), who is always ready to take the boards again and says he won’t act with amateurs, meaning his fellow residents. Maria Mercedes does double duty as kleptomaniac confused resident Betty, who keeps telling us her son is a professor/doctor/musician etc., and he is coming to see her. But of course nobody has ever seen him. Mercedes’ other role is as Chef, who looks as if she may have come from being a prison chef with limited culinary abilities. Mercedes is splendid in both roles. Gentle artist Lesley (Jackie Rees) is a person of interest to former handyman Doug (Frankie J Holden) and in the latter part of Bloom it’s lovely to watch their genuine friendship develop from tentative beginnings. The final resident, Sal (Eddie Muliaumasiali’i, who also plays other small roles) seems to be mute, until someone plays music and Muliaumasiali’i’s glorious operatic bass lets forth. Gleisner’s skilled dramatic writing gradually fleshes out the residents from apparent caricatures, initially, to fully rounded people we care about as the show goes on.
The overworked staff amounts to two nurses/carers, who immediately get our admiration for the way they genuinely care for the residents and do everything they can to bring sunshine and activity into their lives. In this they are cut off at the knees constantly by manager Mrs MacIntyre (Anne Edmonds) with hair and suit and character resembling one Maggie Thatcher. She is the character we love to hate, for her dismissal of residents’ needs and giving her sole attention to the bottom line – a woman without empathy or sympathy, in huge contrast to our carers Gloria (Christian O’Neill) and Ruby (Vidya Makan). Spoiler alert: Mrs Mac does get her comeuppance!
There are several side plots, which are best left for you to discover when you see the show, but the main thrust is how we treat our elderly in society, and how there can be a better way if we are prepared to work for it and fund it.
Each performer is a competent singer, with a couple of standouts in Muliaumasiali’i, and Christina O’Neill, whose ballad singing is of such beauty that there would have been many moist eyes and warm hearts. The massed choral sound of the cast when they perform as a choir towards the end is breathtaking. And young Finn’s vocal warm ups for the choir are hilarious, with the warm up lyrics including “Go and get a beer from the Fridge” and “B’me a beer and a bong”! Definitely more interesting than the usual choir warm up of Bumblebee…
Librettist Tom Gleisner, composer Katie Weston and director Dean Bryant have created a really worthwhile, heartwarming and amusing night in the theatre, with some solid messages for us to take home and ponder.
Photo credit Pia Johnson.
Julie Houghton reviewed the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of “Bloom”, presented at the Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne on June 22, 2023.