Paddington’s abandoned Academy Twin cinema begins its new life as The New Olympia Theatre this week, as playwright and retired drama teacher Chris Dockrill revives the space with a bizarre rock musical called The Island of Doctor Moron.
The epic production is set on a mysterious South Sea island, a place inhabited by half-beast humans and Voodoo Rastafarians, and ruled by the maniacal Doctor Moron (pronounced Mor-own), whose twisted mission is to ‘bring out the beast’ in us all.
“I was distantly inspired by the image of strange, mutated creatures in The Island of Dr Moreau, but this is not quite a musical version of the H. G. Wells novel,” the playwright says, with more than a hint of irony.
Dockrill says the show is a spectacle that will take Sydney by surprise in the same way that Rocky Horror Picture Show did, forty years ago.
“I think visually, you know, with big shows like this, there is so much happening in this production that you almost don’t know where to look,” he explains. “People who have been sneaking into rehearsals for a peek have been blown away – literally gobsmacked.”
When Dockrill first set out to find a home for his production, he did not anticipate that building that home would become part of his project. But when he laid eyes on the musty remains of the Oxford Street space, his imagination quickly filled with possibilities.
The former cinema has been empty since 2010. “The previous tenants took everything,” he continues. “They ripped out all the seats and fittings – everything. So for us it was like having a blank canvas.”
“It’s been locked up for four and a half years. So when we first opened the doors, we felt like tomb-raiders. The dust had really settled.”
For many people, retirement represents extra time to spend in the garden, or traipse around the country in a campervan. But when Dockrill’s teaching career drew to a close, he had shipwrecked mutants on his mind.
Dockrill first unleashed his Doctor Moron saga in 1998 at Kempsey High School, north of Port Macquarie, where he was head of English and Drama. The show was met with rave reviews and Dockrill knew that he would bring it back to life one day on the professional stage, bigger and better.
Holding on to that dream, the ambitious retiree has raised $500,000, enough to produce and stage the musical at a standard that rivals the best Off-Broadway shows. With an eclectic cast of 28 seasoned performers, Dockrill’s magnum opus has taken on an extra dimension.
“The cast are at the point now where they really own it – it’s a tipping point where the power and control shifts from me, the director, to them,” Dockrill says. “They’ve stepped over that tentative line and it belongs to them.”
This seems to be substantiated by Dockrill’s tendency to refer to cast members by their character names – even when they are offstage and out of costume.
Dockrill explains that music and dance are integral to the appeal of the show, illustrating his point with spontaneous impersonations of some of the show’s kookier characters – such as Voodoo Valma; Brother Bob, the preacher; and Rubber Gloves, the whip-cracking, leather-clad slave auctioneer.
“I write musicals to have fun,” he explains. “If you’re after something deep and meaningful, look somewhere else.”
And Dockrill is not alone in his dream to put Doctor Moron back on stage – it is a bit of a family affair. “My wife Lynn is the musical brains behind this. I write the lyrics and she builds a melody around it,” he says. “The score crosses over genres, from folk to jazz to rock to blues; we both really love rock and blues.”
“The theatre is like a recording studio, with acoustic paneling – so, from a sound point-of-view, it’s a dream come true. There has been a lot of work to do, to bring the space back to life, but there was no compromise on set design.”
Dockrill has spent two thirds of his six-month lease on the restoration, decking out the space with 250 imported seats, a stage that measures ten by seven metres, a four metre high gantry, and flying catwalks.
With opening night slated for November 4, cast and crew are ready and raring for a one-month season at The New Olympia Theatre. If the madcap musical is well received, Dockrill hopes to extend the lease for another season.
Actor Jack Thompson has come forward as an enthusiastic Patron for the production, urging audiences to partake in the Doctor Moron experience, and encouraging sponsors to get behind the initiative.
And it seems the local community supports the project too. “This area has been crying out for it. When we had the doors open, while we were working on the space, ten minutes wouldn’t go by without someone coming in to thank us, and sharing their memories of the space,” Dockrill says. “It has been a revolving door of people from the neighbourhood letting us know that they appreciate what we’re doing.”
Nov 4-Dec 6, The New Olympia Theatre, 3 Oxford St, Paddington, $53-88, ticketmaster.com.au