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The stars seem very distant in this celebrity tour through disaster-prone Hollywood

With the Mayan cataclysm due in just under a month, it seems appropriate that we should now turn to playwright Declan Greene, one the younger members of Melbourne's "apocalypse generation", that loose collection of theatre makers driven by pop-influenced transcendental imagery who, from about 2005, began orbiting around the Malthouse Theatre.

Greene is joined here by director Matthew Lutton and designer Nick Schlieper, both more than comfortable in the transcendental mode, for a nightmare vision of childhood celebrity in the city of Los Angeles.

It opens with an ominously surreal sequence apparently set in Judy Garland's dressing room. Judy is joined by Dana Plato and Jonathon Brandis, among other studio-types, and their various social and professional problems – principally the failure to adjust once childhood's ticket has expired – are spliced with earthquake paranoia, social commentary and a twisted script reading of the Tommy Lee Jones' disaster flick Volcano (1997). It soon becomes apparent that what we're seeing is a sort of traumatic hallucination, which eventually dissolves as the dreamer, an unnamed former child star, emerges into painful consciousness.

In their interview with Time Out, Greene and Lutton speak about trying to capture the sense of "inertia and boredom" that characterises Hollywood life between takes. It might be that they indulged too much in this theme, as Pompeii, L.A. struggles to hold a consistent sense of dramatic tension or development. At times the odd pacing and faintly nauseating discontinuities do create a sense of apprehension, but this is dissipated by some laborious set changes and a stilted rhythm.

It's also quite grim. The script feels comic – there are lines and exchanges that seem perfect for a more boisterous presentation, particularly given all the celebrity allusions that Greene builds on – but this production is consistently cold-eyed and gloomy, always stepping back from those scenes with the most comic potential. At its best, this creates a certain Pinter-ish anxiety; too often, however, it has a flattening, almost deadening, effect on the drama.

As the only original piece of Australian writing on the Malthouse's main stage this season, there might be a certain amount of pressure on Pompeii to be more than just a tight, chamber piece, pressure, that is, to match the spectacle of the season's earlier director-led adaptations. A smaller design, however, might have given it more intensity and dynamism. It might, for instance, have allowed for a subtler blending of the opening dream, allowing a more nuanced visual code. It might also have allowed the dreamer to surface into the final act – set in a hospital – with some of the cultural unease developed in the first two acts still clinging to him.

The cast have some fun with the accents and the sterotypes, but it doesn't feel as if they are really given enough to work with. Belinda McClory's Judy Garland is likable and Greg Stone gets a powerful moment in the opening act, which he doesn't squander. David Harrison is convincing in a numb sort of way as the child star, but Anna Samson, Tony Nikolakopoulos and Luke Ryan aren't given much opportunity.

The play has an impressive structure, moving decisively from ironic deep-dreaming to a quiet, episodic tragedy, but it does sometimes feel like a freightless container, a design lacking a decisive animating argument. Trying follow and trace the details gathered from contemporary and historical Hollywood disasters, natural and human, keeps the audience engaged, but in a rather cool way, and Lutton relies too heavily on design elements, like the wrecked Porsche portentously carted on and off and on again, or David Franzke's ear-splitting white-noise, to generate a sense of crisis, all of which tend to obscure the potential life – intellectual or emotional – of the piece.

Declan Greene and Matthew Lutton on Pompeii, L.A

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By Andrew Furhmann   |   Photos by Garth Oriander

Pompeii, L.A. details

Merlyn Theatre
113 Sturt St, Southbank 3006

Telephone 03 9685 5111

Price $26.00 to $58.00

Date 16 Nov 2012-09 Dec 2012

Open 7.30pm

Director: Matthew Lutton

Cast: Belinda McClory, Chris Ryan, Anna Samson, Greg Stone, Tony Nikolakopoulos

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