Taking on The Chocolate Frog

Underbelly meets Theatre in a 3 part doco where ex-crims tackle Shakespeare & a classic Aussie play.

074A2339Anyone who has ever performed in theatre will tell you it’s all about Trust: trusting your fellow performer to be there for you when you are on stage, baring you soul in front of hundreds of people.

So it stands to reason that Drama Coach Grant Thompson would draw upon Theatre for his class of ex-prisoners to show what they are made of in Taking on The Chocolate Frog.

Thompson was hired by Underbelly producers Screentime to look after extras on the Nine series. With their life experience, many had never acted before. Now he runs a small Sydney class comprising actual ex-prisoners (and one parent of a prisoner) using drama to further their skills base. After all, it’s not every actors’ agency that has big, burly blokes on their books. If they can prove themselves adept at performing, they may find themselves in demand.

But the class has never performed in public, and has no experience in stagecraft. Thompson proposes they perform The Chocolate Frog, a one-act play written in 1971 by Jim McNeil, who was incarcerated at Parramatta prison at the time.

The troupe are dumbfounded when Thompson suggests they perform the work to an audience of critics and thespians, inside the walls of the former prison. Some of them even spent time there, and aren’t exactly enthused about stepping back inside the walls, even in the name of art.

In this 3 part documentary Thompson puts his team through the hoops of auditions, rehearsals, overcoming fears, and rising to challenges. The men -and one woman- display various degrees of commitment to the concept, but there is strength in numbers. We learn about their past and present, although there’s not a lot of detail about the victims of their crimes. Still, rehabilitation is central to society’s justice system and drama gives them reason to hope.

Watching the team tackle Shakespeare is fascinating stuff, as they endeavour to come to grips with the language, meaning and the power of a dramatic pause.

One of the cast members is heavily-tattooed Michael LaHoud who was excised from the SBS doco Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl after he exaggerated facts about his past. Here he indicates being on remand for a short time, with STUDIO confirming presented facts have been verified.

The play also requires a younger performer to be introduced to the group, and Thompson weighs up whether to incorporate trained actors or others with less experience but who will better fit the troupe.

One participant is perpetually late and seemingly uncommitted. Rule #1 of showbiz is punctuality.

Raw and sometimes with colourful language, the series wears its heart on its sleeve. Using Drama for rehabilitation is an admirable lesson. I’m not entirely convinced it really warrants three episodes -it takes until the end of the second ep to cast the play, with some men missing out. This feels like unnecessary drama for the sake of television when a 1 hour doco of rehearsal / performance could have readily supplied a similar outcome.

Nevertheless, it’s rare that television shines a light on a classic play from a renaissance decade in Australian theatre. Taking on The Chocolate Frog reminds us that no matter how much punch you may pack you’re probably no match for the power of words.

Taking on The Chocolate Frog begins 9:30pm Monday on STUDIO.

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