REVIEW: Big Toys

Presented by English Theatre, Vienna – 1977

  • Directed by PETER WYNGARDE.

Character: Richie Bosenquet.

Written by Nobel Laureate, Patrick White. European Premier 1978

The Action takes place in a Sydney harbourside penthouse in Winter and early Spring, 1976.

That enterprising institution, Vienna’s English Theatre, gave ‘Big Toys’ – a play by Patrick White, the Australian author who was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature, its first performance outside of its native land. By 1978, only 11 dramatists had been bestowed with the Nobel Prize. This disproportionate list suggests that drama was ranked way below fiction and poetry by the Stockholm jurors.

‘Big Toys’ had its premiere in Sydney in September 1977 and was scheduled for Broadway in the autumn of ’78. It had also been hoped that the Vienna production would be bound for the West End which, sadly, didn’t come about. White’s play is a weighing of ethical values in ‘todays’ chaotic world. However, it occasionally became vague in its mixing of the general and the particular, but it was always fascinating; a discussion of ideas with rumbling melodramatic undertones.


Terry (Keith Buckley), the story’s Socialist leading character is, on the surface, a stock figure; a young man of humble origin and high ideals caught in a net of his cynical socialBIG TOYS betters. We’ve seen him often before. There was certainly irony in White’s selection of his ‘hero’s’ profession, since compromise is mandatory in the successful public man and the author managed to juggle the account of his education contemptuously.

PETER as Richie and Helen Gill as Mag in a scene from the play ⇒

His smooth-talking orator is converted by Mag (Helen Gill) – the frivolous wife of a successful lawyer, who specialises in the defence of shady clients. The young Marxist succumbs to her flattering admiration and he becomes her lover – much to the satisfaction of her complacent husband, Richie (PETER WYNGARDE). However, there’s subterfuge in this seduction: The defence attorney is anxious to have the leftist firebrand testify on the behalf of an aggressive Capitalist.

At the trial, the young crusader doesn’t perjure himself, but refuses from offering the condemning evidence, and so the turncoat who he hates is acquitted and let loose to, apparently, corner the uranium market for immoral ends.

The deceitful lawyer and his wife might’ve won over the young man’s integrity, be he cuts all relations with them having learned a valuable lesson: He’s no longer the starry-eyed bumpkin of the start. He’s gained a necessary polish by the association and he goes on to continue his career – his personal taste having shifted from beer to bonded Scotch.


The main theme of the play is sometimes clouded by the ambiguous behaviour of the trio – the lawyer, his wife and the lover – the only characters that appear. There is eccentricity in their relationships and hints of bizarre sexuality. Two near-nude bedroom scenes between PETER and Gill were inserted for this production, perhaps to lend a racy tone, since neither of the sections moved the action forward.

The production of Vienna’s English Theatre skillfully camouflaged the theatrical blunders. It avoided the pitfalls of a script that now and again skirted the burlesque, maintaining firm control over several different passages. For sure, this was down to PETER’s shrewd, intelligent direction, which was deserving of full marks, and he also played the oily lawyer with delightful drawing room panache; an excellent and extremely entertaining performance.

Helen Gill scored as his lascivious wife – a brainless tart who was visited by sudden pangs of conscience, and Keith Buckley as socialist Terry who, like Samson, escaped with the loss of only a few locks of his hair instead of being cropped of his power.

Roderich Proksch designed the miniature stage with a striking set of the luxurious apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour.

The following is taken from the theatre programme

If author Patrick White’s biggest seller in the West was the novel ‘Voss’, then ‘Big Toys’ – his first play in more than 12 years, might well have been called ‘Gloss’.

Comic, tragic, cruelly baited and barbed, ‘Big Toys’ was a play for the Seventies, displaying a sophisticated and elegant overlay, but revealing the corruption and confusion that arise in a society unsure of its direction and in ambitious people unsure of themselves. This production not only marked the European unveiling of the play, but the very first presentation of any of the Australian writer’s plays in Austria.

In the first act, when Labour leader Terry Legge tries to escape the world of seduction and manipulation, fashionable Conservatism and interchangeable sex, that White has put on the stage and thrust him into, he calls it “Darling Land”, but he can no more leave it than the audience and take its eyes and ears off it – for Terry is already part of it himself. Or, as critic Axel Kruse observed when ‘Big Toys’ had its premiere in Sydney in September, 1977: “You look at this play the way you look at a beautiful woman, and you hear the conversation as a voice of intimate consciousness that might be your own, although it certainly is not.”

The most glittering of White’s toy people is Mag. Cattier than Tennessee Williams’ sex-starved Maggie in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, she might be Mag-the-Cat in a panoramic penthouse overlooking Sydney Harbour. Yet it is she who, early in the encounter, calls Terry a cat – and, in the end, after numerous costume changes by all concerned and Mag’s reference to her own “infinitesimal core of good which hasn’t been smothered by all the drag,” we are no longer certain of anyone’s sex, breed, or appetites. Cats, which see by night, can look alike in White’s light!

Terry Legge entered stage left like Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in ‘On The Waterfront’, but as he travels from beer to Scotch, from devout Marxist to plaything of a woman he calls “The Rich Bitch”, and from ‘mateship’ (that compulsive camaraderie of the Australian male) to mellowness in “Darling Land”. In the end, we have any and all three reactions to his heroic choice: We might cheer him; distrust him; even envy him.

Above it all, with his back turned when he had “anything important to discuss” is PETER WYNGARDE in the role of the elegant Richie Bosenquet, Queen’s Counsel, who is described by his wife Mag as someone who has never been a human being, though dressed up as one.

In playwright White’s stage directions, Richie is described as follows: ‘His manner has assurance of a carefully considered kind, which will not prevent him lapsing into an almost frenetic diffidence when he feels threatened by the unforeseen. Everything he does is studied – or perhaps on the other hand, it isn’t: he is simply enigmatic. There is sexuality in his make-up, but he uses it coldly and deliberately.”

In the beginning of ‘Big Toys’, there is a balloon that bursts. It might be a toy or maybe it’s the earth we live on. In the end, there is the threat of class war and nuclear disaster, with uranium described as “the biggest, gaudiest toy that ever escaped from a child’s hand.”

Of course, the dark threat is left lurking discreetly off-stage, but this does not mean that White shirks confrontation. ‘Big Toys ‘ tells us in terrible detail, in wonderful words of fire and ice, that we are in great danger of going down the drain because we have become distraction, falling for shadows rather than substance, of not closing with power games for what they really mean because we prefer to play on the periphery – to be side-tracked by style.”

And persuasion by the distraction of glittering entertainment and literary style was the substance of ‘Big Toys’.

When this play was staged, PETER was spending his second consecutive summer at the English Theatre in Vienna.

The previous July, he’d played George Bernard Shaw opposite Ruth Brinkmann in ‘Dear Liar’ – a play which re-opened in September of that year to accommodate the large number of subscribers and members of the public who has missed it in the summer.

During his stay, PETER also directed and played Shylock in the English Theatre’s television production ‘Scenes From Shakespeare’; he performed excerpts from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ that were shown on the ORF (Austrian Educational Television) in 1976.

Interview with PETER:

© Copyright The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society:


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