We think nothing of saying "I'm just popping out back for a minute". But there's more to that phrase in Australia; something of a spatial, existential nature. Written in 1988 out of daytimes in the shearing shed and weekends in the local bar, this is an Aussie experience far removed from Neighbours. No barbies, no thongs, no roos. Beaut.
Except that Ramsay Street is a cul-de-sac and so, dramatically speaking, is The Exchange. Writer and performer Philip Aughey sits us down in the Exchange Hotel, Muttaburra (pop. around 35), in Queensland's central-west – just the 60 miles from the nearest 'A' road, and 758 miles NNW of Brisbane. Not too remote by Australian standards, more grazing land than outback; but the "Wet" happens over three months (if you're lucky) and the rain is "bird's piss" for the rest of the year. You don't need to see the flies, nor the rats – and there was a croc, once, on Bruford Street.
Inside are Cyril and Toby. Cyril (played by Aughey), older, had been a stockman and Toby (Bradley Burgess), a shearer. They have been mates forever and from Friday morning to Saturday midnight have no idea who's buying. Beer on Fridays, rum on Saturdays, and that's how it is – has forever been.
In a sit-com, Cyril and Toby might be likeable old-timers, but The Exchange is not four scenes of folksy banter. Cyril stinks, because he doesn't wash and his trousers are worn through. His speech seems childish, but like a child, he is interested in the big questions: for example, where's God and that Buddha bloke? There is no one at home for Cyril; there is actually only his mate left for him, but still there's the worry, "You're not going to consume me, are you Toby?" Now there was a conversation that was going somewhere but, no, Toby was in no condition to answer.
Unsurprisingly, long-suffering barman and manager Ron (Matthew McFarlane) is lost, stonkered, and his laconic philosophy is equally hopeless. And Toby, for his part, is mildly overbearing, but just as drunk and needy. There is rhythm and merit to this artless dialogue, but it’s unrelieved.
It would be very good, all agree, if something different happened, if – literally – someone else came into their lives and picked them up. But once the road was fixed, it seems that everyone took the by-pass and left town.
Which is how I felt. Faded, displaced, stuck. The Exchange takes you away and puts you hard up against inaction, old age, loneliness and drink. The programme promises “outback humour”, and you’ll smile – sometimes – but you’ll thirst for tears, or simply another beer. Nevertheless, there's tough love, pathos and humanity, all the way back to Muttaburra.