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The Age

THE GOOD LIFE LUNCH WITH . . . JUSTINE CLARKE

Author: Paul Kalina
Date: 10/09/2011
Words: 999
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Life & Style
Page: 3
JUSTINE CLARKE leaps from lounge room to real life with a relaxed charm that enchants young and old, writes Paul Kalina.

PART of the way through what turns out to be a very long lunch with the multitalented Justine Clarke, a woman seated at the neighbouring table politely interrupts us. She tells Clarke how much joy her children's songs give her daughter who, she adds, has Down syndrome and was recently diagnosed with leukaemia.

For what seems like two minutes or more, we sit in silence, Clarke stares out the window and holds back tears. A mother of three, Clarke is clearly humbled and moved by the woman's gratitude.

Twelve years on Play School, a memorable turn on the stalwart soap Home and Away, stage roles and, most recently, a string of well-received films and TV shows means Clarke is often recognised in public. As a TV publicist who has worked with Clarke tells me before our date, she has always been in our lives.

These days she enjoys the recognition, especially the looks from children when they realise the cheery person with whom they've shared bubble-gum songs and dances in the living room exists outside a TV set.

"Sometimes they just don't believe it. I think it's amazing, too. It's kind of a long explanation," she says of her dual incarnations.

We're lunching at Dandelion at the suggestion of Kat Stewart, Clarke's friend, neighbour and co-star in the wry relationship drama Tangle.

Dandelion is Geoff Lindsay's (formerly of Pearl) modern take on Vietnamese food in a surprisingly bright and sunny renovated shopfront in Elwood.

Stewart has already primed Clarke for the Peking duck wrap, a piece of succulent bird bound in rice paper with cucumber and spring onion and a dollop of hoi sin sauce on the side, which we share along with a serve of soft-shell crab and avocado wraps, and a prawn and vermicelli salad.

Our eyes being bigger than our stomachs, we also order bowls of pho, medicine for the cold Clarke is nursing after a busy, three-month stint of back-to-back TV work.

Clarke first appeared in a TV ad for Humphrey B. Bear biscuits in 1978, aged seven, her path into the world of theatre and music paved by her jazz-singer father and dancer-turned-actor mother (Clarke also occasionally performs jazz shows).

There was lots of singing at home, she recalls, as there is today in the place she shares with actor Jack Finsterer and their three children, who occasionally appear with her on stage in the children's shows she has been performing since 2006.

Fame hasn't always sat easily on Clarke's shoulders. Her big break was playing the infamous Roo Stewart at the height of Home and Away's popularity. She was 16 and found instant fame "hard to compute". It was the era of the super-soap, when Neighbours' Charlene and Scott (and Roo) were larger-than-life figures inseparable from the actors who portrayed them.

Roo was Summer Bay's original brat and first pregnant teen. "Instead of saying 'I do' when she walked down the aisle with Frank, she said, 'I can't; it's not your baby.' He ran out of the church, got in the car and drove off a ravine," Clarke recalls with a gleeful laugh.

She returned to Melbourne to attend the VCA but never graduated, lured by stage and TV roles and to record children's songs.

Generous, open and relaxed, Clarke pauses to consider her answers, processing her thoughts and occasionally throwing back questions as we make our way through more than two hours of food and talk.

She concedes it took some time before she found the roles and jobs that give her creative satisfaction.

"I do enjoy finding something ... honest. I don't really know what that means to anybody else but me. I'm often interested by something that I come across. I don't have a dream role that I've always wanted to play. If I come across something that I really feel connected to . . . and maybe that's what it's been for me, something I can connect to."

Sarah Watt's Look Both Ways in 2005 was certainly a turning point in finding her niche. "I didn't realise before I saw it how incredibly moving it was, that it would stay with me in some form or other," Clarke says of her role as an artist who befriends a photographer haunted by forebodings of mortality. "It's still with me now. I think about it a lot."

In the pay-TV drama Tangle, which returns for its third season next year, she plays another highly sympathetic, relatable woman in her 30s.

Her character is an emotionally cocooned wife and mother whose naivety and deprivations are starkly revealed with the return of her flamboyant sister (Kat Stewart) and the death of her rogue husband.

"There are scenes, things people do and talk about in Tangle that you wouldn't talk to your best friend about," Clarke says. "It makes you uneasy and if it's made you uneasy, it's done its job in some ways."

Demand for her forthcoming children's shows in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne  most have sold out  is evidence of the cross-generational affection she has cultivated.

She says the biggest reward of the concerts is seeing kids engage with music. "I love the idea that this may be the first live-music concert someone will see in their lifetime. I feel a great deal of responsibility in that as well. I also think it's an opportunity to introduce children to the joy and wonder of live music."

No less important for Clarke is how music bonds children and parents  and grandparents in the case of Play School, which Clarke's mother watches with her grandchildren.

"Often a child will be listening with a parent and you can't forget the connection between a parent and their child," Clarke says. "It's also about giving parents an experience for themselves with live music."

Justine Clarke's Little Day Out Tour is at the Dallas Brooks Centre on Wednesday, October 5, various times, tickets available at Ticketmaster. New episodes of Tangle will screen on Showcase next year.

The bill, please

DANDELION

133 Ormond Road, Elwood, 9531 4900, Thurs-Sun noon-3pm, Tues-Sun 5.30pm-10pm.

 
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