Review: The Colours by Peter Houghton
A third of the way through The Colours, we’re still asking ourselves: are we watching a skilled actor doing lots of roles -- principally that of a Colour Sergeant Atkins barking orders at his infantrymen -- or just the one man, who has gone barking mad?
And just as Elton used comedy and satire to tackle very serious issues -- the media’s complicity in killing sprees -- Houghton uses his extraordinary comic skills to tell a sad and troubled tale of loyalty abused and an empire in decline. It’s an Apocalypse Now-style story related sitcom style, like a dark episode of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
Actually, Atkins has plenty in common with Battery Sergeant Major Williams from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. He’s a regimental thug in a far-flung outpost of a bankrupt and overextended empire. And, yes, the natives are restless. It’s time for a changing of the colours.
The Colours, we eventually establish, is set just after the Second World War in a fictional African colony, Batundi. (I immediately thought Burundi, but that terribly poor country was never part of the British Empire. It was German then Belgian.)
The 98th, of which Atkins is a part, is a regiment that has fought for King and country since the Napoleonic Wars; a regiment that has distinguished itself on no fewer than eighty battlefields. Atkins principal duty is to guard the regiment’s ensign, the flag under which the infantrymen rally. He literally flies the colours. With a bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle in hand.
Houghton and his director Anne Browning -- the team that brought us The Pitch -- quite brilliantly balance sympathy and contempt for Atkins: admiration for his determination and loyalty on the one hand and disdain for his brutal methods on the other. The real heroes are the volunteers and conscripts who have fought and died under the blood red ensign: the Irishman determined to feed his extended family, the Marxist-sympathiser, the artist and so on.
It’s neither a black armband nor a white blindfold view of Empire. It manages to be nostalgic without ever romanticising a bloody past. It’s comedy with bayonet fixed. It’ll gut you.
The Colours, written and performed by Peter Houghton. Directed by Anne Browning. Set and costume design by Shaun Gurton. Lighting by Richard Vabre. Music by David Chesworth. Melbourne Theatre Company. At the MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio, until September 12.
A slightly shortened version of this review was published in the September 9 edition of the Herald Sun.