Reunion Day Reading: An Interview with Denny Lawrence

June 20, 2022
A TV play, banned in Australia sixty years ago because of sensitivities over Anzac Day, is to receive its first public performance in Sydney this week.

Reunion Day, by Sydney author Peter Yeldham, was originally performed on television for the BBC in 1962, with cast mostly comprised of Australian expats in England. Although received with great acclaim, it was banned from broadcast on Australian television because of its depiction of war veterans on Anzac Day.

Stephen Vagg has written a number of pieces on the history of the play for Filmink such as this and this. He’s also organised a reading at AFTRS on Sunday June 26 which is being directed by Denny Lawrence, an experienced actor, writer, producer and director whose credits include the feature film Goodbye Paradise and the mini-series Bodyline.

FilmInk spoke with Denny about the reading.

How did you get involved in this production?

“I was approached by Stephen Vagg, with whom I first worked on a television series I produced. He asked if I knew of Reunion Day; needless to say, I had never heard of it – even though I knew a lot of Peter Yeldham’s work. I especially admired the 1963 British feature film The Comedy Man, which he wrote and is one of the best films about the life of an actor. Stephen asked if I’d be willing to direct a reading.”

Why did you agree?

“Quite simply, because I thought it a terrific piece of writing – and I agreed that, after such an illustrious career, Peter Yeldham deserved to be celebrated.”

What did you think about the play when you read it?

“I was impressed by the skillful way that Mr Yeldham handled a somewhat delicate subject, without any judgment of his characters, who are all completely human – which is to say flawed and vulnerable, while being basically decent people. Apart from some ‘topical’ references and elements of the idiom of the time, like all good drama, it doesn’t feel dated. It really wears well. And every character is fully fleshed out and really quite distinct; no mean feat with so many of them, the majority being Australian males of a certain age. The play represents a strong example of the kind of television naturalism that developed in the fifties and sixties from writers in the UK and USA. In Australia, the predilection was more for melodrama – ‘soap opera’. It may well have aided Mr Yeldham’s writing that he went to the UK early in his career.”

How do you think it compares to other Australian plays from this time, notably The One Day of the Year?

“I performed in, and later directed The One Day of the Year so I know it well, and regard it highly. I feel that Reunion Day is every bit as good and in some ways superior to The One Day of the Year. The latter can at times be a bit didactic, which Reunion Day never is. Plus, the women in Reunion Day – despite playing a smaller part than the men – are not stereotyped, whereas in Alan Seymour’s play the North Shore girl, in particular, is rather two-dimensional. Reunion Day is a bit less concerned with war as such and more with male-male and male-female dynamics, somewhat in the manner of Summer of the 17th Doll, a production of which, coincidentally, I am about to direct. Reunion Day compares very favourably to that great work as well.”

I understand you knew some of the cast of the 1962 BBC production (e.g. Ray Barrett, Ron Haddrick). What are some of your memories?

“Yes, I worked with a few of them over the years – notably Ron Haddrick and Ray Barrett. When I was a NIDA student, we understudied at the Old Tote (precursor to the Sydney Theatre Company) and Ron was a leading member of that company. Soon after graduating, I was guest lead in an episode of a series called Dynasty [not the American show] and Ron was the co-lead. We worked on radio and television together many times after that. A true gentleman – and ideal casting for the role in Reunion Day.

“That episode of Dynasty was the first television credit for Bob Ellis, with whom I later wrote the feature film Goodbye Paradise. I didn’t know Ray Barrett personally but knew his work well and fought hard to have him cast in the leading role. Can you believe the producer didn’t want him? I later directed him in one of his last roles in an ABC television series. He was truly one of our finest screen actors – and again would have been ideal casting in Reunion Day.”

Tell me about the cast for the reading.

“Our cast is Paul Bertram, Brandon Burke, John Derum, Laura Gabriel, Deborah Galanos, Huw Higginson, Sarah-Jane Kelly, Ruth Caro, David Lynch, Colin Moody, Tilly Oddy-Black, Christopher Stollery and John Stone.

“I am delighted that such a gifted group of actors has made themselves available for this event. I have worked with all but a couple of them in the past and regard them highly as actors – and especially as fine readers, a skill that has diminished over the years. They have all responded with enthusiasm and admiration to the script and are excited to be taking part.

“As an aside, Laura Gabriel is the grand-daughter of Ethel Gabriel and is playing the role her grand-mother created in Reunion Day.”

[clockwise from right] Colin Moody, Tilly Oddy-Black, Sarah-Jane Kelly, Christopher Stollery, Laura Gabriel, Deborah Galanos, David Lynch, Ruth Caro

Reunion Day: A Reading will be held at the Main Theatre, AFTRS, Building 130, The Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park (Entry via Errol Flynn Boulevard) on Sunday June 26 at 2pm. Admission is free, though a gold coin donation is requested to help offset costs. Bookings essential.
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