OUR FATHER WHO (NEARLY) ART IN HEAVEN 

Sydney Fringe Festival – Reginald Theatre Seymour Centre

Play by N. Gregory Finger

Directed by Stuart Owen

15-19 September

Cast: Chris Heaslip, Catherine Davies, Stuart Owen, Michelle Millgate, Kate Parker-Frost, Richard Clark, Douglas Kent, Daniel Hunter

Synopsis – No one in the Longhorn family has seen each other for six years, but when family patriarch, Hubert, has a massive heart attack the estranged relatives are re-united. Hubert is a renown media personality and reportedly worth millions. As it turns out, everyone in the family is strapped for cash and secretly hoping he won’t pull through. Of course, he does; but his brush with death acts as the catalyst he needed to finally put his affairs in order. Who exactly stands to inherit the substantial estate is now up in the air, and everyone wants a slice of the action.

Review – It’s fringe season in Sydney, the opportunity for all levels of theatre practitioners to put on a show and give it a red hot go at developing/presenting both established and new productions on an independent budget and stage. Playwright Nathan Finger certainly has done that by writing a farce in his production of Our Father Who (Nearly) Art in Heaven. It is an immensely tricky genre to be writing; it takes tremendous skill and observation of human behaviour to develop characters who both project the absurd nature of humanity as well as the truthful aspects of character, personality and given circumstance. Considering this, Mr. Finger has done a clever job, with promising rhythm and tempo with in the piece which does not lack in pace or momentum. New plays are always faced with challenges, with their strengths and their weaknesses exposed and tender with the inevitable re-writes that are sure to happen over the course of a plays kick starting period or even life span. The strength within Fingers writing lies within his confidence with his stories driving force and the absurdist character embellishments that are consistent throughout the piece. Finger has some popping one liners, especially out of the mouth of character Auntie Violet that are well placed and written, he has a firm grasp on dry humour and an ability to easily make his audience laugh. In this respect the production proved successful with an audience responding and engaging to the comedy with vigour and at times applause. The weaknesses in this piece I feel lies in that the plot is built on very thin exposition, with a very heavy cast of nine. This would be considered a large cast for professional shows, for the fringe it’s huge. With so many characters to focus on through-out, there was very little depth that made these characters ring truthfully. Perhaps merging these ideas/characters into two or three bodies instead of nine could produce far more interesting and complex characters. Farce theatre is absurd, yes, but if truthfulness does not resound in the core of the character their absurdist nature produces an actor who uses the absurd as a crutch. It was all too heavy-handed making for performances that became bad parody’s of farce.

This production has great potential, but has been let down in direction by assuming that because this comedy is farce in nature it’s fine to play absurdly and animated without any risk of being over the top. Farce is much more interesting when played truthfully, this creates interesting conflict within the story making for a more enjoyable and engaging experience for the audience. The physicality presented in this production was enormously animated and jarring. My esteemed colleague likened it to monkeys with guns, which I had to agree. Every possible stereotypical expression was magnified by all performers. As a viewer I felt like someone had put my fingers into an electric socket. It was all too much, with no sense of comedy craftsmanship, just bad acting being posed as farce characterisation. You only have to reference shows such as Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce to witness performances such as that of the National Theatres production (not to compare, but surely a perfect place to find inspiration and clarity) of his work to see the brilliant seemingly oblivious naturalistic craft of physical story telling, the “between the lines” comedy which generates absurdity without force by playing the physical story of the work naturalistically. The Vicar of Dibley another fine example of farce done right.

It would have been in director Stuart Owens best interest to have explored this angle as Fingers writing was strong enough to uphold such potential towards this direction. Instead it was hammy sitcom instead of what the piece was designed to be, a farce comedy. It was very hard to establish Fingers more subtle intentions within his writing due to the guns blazing physical explosions that continually surged from the stage. It certainly didn’t serve the writing as strongly as it could have.

Reiterating my comments above, Our Father Who (Nearly) Art In Heaven, shows tremendous promise but has a long way to go in development and exploration both from playwright, director and cast to bring this to where it needs to be. There are question marks within the writing and within direction that are yet to be answered with clarity, but that is what Sydney Fringe Festival is all about.

RIDE & FOURPLAY

Darlinghurst Theatre Co/ Eternity Playhouse

4 Sep – 4 Oct

Plays by Jane Bodie

Directed By Anthony Skuse

Photo credit – Robert Catto

Performed by Tom O’Sullivan, Emma Palmer, Aaron Glenane, Gabrielle Scawthorn

Synopsis thoughts from the programmes Director’s Notes –

Both plays are concerned with how we negotiate relationships, how we use those relationships to garner a sense of identity. They are all striving to be the best versions of themselves as they dance around each other. Most of the time authenticity eludes them as they perform compromised versions of themselves.

Review –

You know the saying, ‘Save the best ’till last?’ it’s a common and well used phrase for a myriad of possible excitable notions towards the expectation of something delicious, fun, or just plain old school fantastic. When leaving the Eternity Playhouse, mentally and mind fully chewing on the rather unctuous amount of theatre I had witnessed in playwright Jane Bodie’s paired up play’s Ride & Fourplay. My first impulsive thoughts don’t often make the first paragraph in my final draft, but as I stepped out into the night air, my first thought stuck like super glue to skin and that is, ‘I can not leave the best till last.’ I have to talk about THAT straight way!’ I just can’t discuss these plays in chronological order of appearance, I have to start talking about Fourplay, Ride won’t get as high an acclaim for reasons I will explain later in my review. But for now, I just can’t wait to discuss the second part of this theatre experience. So here goes.

Renown English theatre director Peter Brook wrote in the opening lines of his book ‘The Empty Space’, regarding the definition of theatre. I quote, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” This was the very first thing I thought when Fourplay began. The simplistic, raked stage now striped of all its set dressing and naturalism from Ride leaving essentially (with a stylistic twist) an empty space, with two women and two men walking from corner to corner, past one another with sparse physical contact whilst thoroughly engaging their audience, hello minimalism, hello performer focused art, hello my kind of theatre. When I review a show, I am hugely interested in audience actor dynamics, how the audience engage mentally and emotionally by closely observing their physical engagement to what occurs on stage. Hooked, is the word to best describe the audience during Fourplay, hooked I was also, thrilled in fact that director Anthony Skuse chose to run with Bodie’s stage suggestion that this play can be played non naturalistically. It makes her strict note that characters Alice and Jack are to be played naturalistically throughout the work all the more poignant and powerful. Bodie’s mindfulness in regards to structure, form and manipulation of time (as mentioned by Skuse in his director’s notes) makes Fourplay a structural intrigue to watch and I can only assume an intriguing directing opportunity. Fourplay is LIVING proof that great writing can carry an audience from A-Z and on the edge of their seats with out the need to set design show-off, which has exhausted me this year and unimpressed me greatly by some of our prominent theatre companies. This coupled with a director with sound judgement, clear objectives and actors whom have encapsulated their characters beautifully thanks to a specific structural method in style and writing by Bodie, makes for a refreshing, gorgeous approach to theatre making that is foundationally built on equal respect for the written word and trust in director, actors and the creative body as a whole. This play speaks beyond the naturalistic situations of relationships and provides a much more diverse ratio of meaning. Simply, the lack of physical contact, eye contact and typical architectural flesh responses that were forced to be individual made for a much deeper exploration of self as a viewer. This restriction too I feel assisted the actors to not knee jerk react physically in response to each other, but instead instilled focus and purpose in their movement which made for a richer experience as an audience member. The disconnection from naturalism made the intimate moments that were purposefully naturalistic physically poetic. What we would consider a generic intimate response felt brand new because we were deprived of it consistently throughout. As Bodie even mentions out of the mouth of her character Natasha, ‘ There is nothing interesting about a love story. It’s been done to death’ What is interesting about Bodie’s writing and Skuse’s direction is that it is approached from a quirky angle and cleverly so. There is absolutely nothing in Fourplay we haven’t all seen before. In fact it is a cliche super nova in content, but in style and execution it feels as if we are being exposed to something brand new. I dare say, but with conviction that Fourplay is reminiscent of Pop Art. It is the everyday basics on display, the object itself is so common it’s almost invisible but the technique and approach towards it makes it somehow, fascinating, like we are seeing it for the first time.

Aaron Glenane who played Jack in Fourplay seemed right at home in this production, his performance was a stand out for me. Glenane has a naturalistic ability to physically express his character with no sense of striving or strain. Glenane produced a character that was likeable, humorous and most of all genuine. Glenane formed a quick and potent connection with his audience, a very talented performer, a craftsman in his field, I loved his performance. Gabrielle Scawthorn, as Alice gave a performance with her characters heart plucked, in hand and bleeding for all to see, she ebbed and flowed between heart ache, sarcasm and humour with breeze, beautifully and believable. Tom O’Sullivan, as Tom, wove for us a tapestry of a character full of bewilderment, lust, selfishness, little boy straits and elements of boy trying to be man. O’Sullivan is clearly a committed actor, and his performance reflected the at times tongue in cheek aspects of an actors process discussed in the writing and ran with it well. His times of stillness with in this piece though I felt could have been more complimentary by providing his audience with less of the ‘I-am-man-contemplating-my-fate-in-silence’ stance that took so much of his focus it felt forced most of the time, it felt like acting. More of nothing would have been preferred, not trying to be stillness. Just being stillness. Considering his character responses to questions thrown at him by Scawthorns’s character Alice felt reminiscent of Tony Abbott interviews, careless, flippant and inconsiderate to circumstance. I doubt much fluid thought went through his characters mind in silence either. It was as if O’Sullivan was trying to bring some nobility or pride to his character which felt against his characters nature and maturity level.  O’Sullivan though performed with tremendous gusto in Fourplay. Emma Palmer, played the ‘sassy’ flirtatious, confident, controlling character Natasha. Palmer exudes her natural confidence on stage as a performer. She brought a lot of fun and charisma making for a desired shift of feeling from heartbreak to, I don’t give a fuck I’ll do what I want. We all find ourselves there at some point, and it was fun to see this character played in this manner. Even when she was observing her fellow actors in her moments of solitude or stillness she retained this manner that was consistent of her character. Her expressions were a dialogue all on their own. Palmer’s character on paper comes across as rather unbearable at times, but Palmer avoided any eye-roll by playing Natasha with a self-confidence and assurance as an audience member you couldn’t argue with. Her choices were nonchalant, and care-free which made me as an audience member not to feel malice toward the archetype being played but instead accepting her for her archetype and letting it be, which assisted in enjoying her character instead of despising or brushing her off as a pretentious tart. Fourplay was just wonderful, worth sitting through Ride to get to it.

Ride, I’m not going to dive into this Bodie play nearly as much as I have with Fourplay, as it did very little for me. Two straight people drunk, with memory loss and emotional baggage, naked in a bed, wake up with hang overs galore, attempt to decode the night before and perhaps each others secrets. The given circumstances didn’t thrill me, and characters Elizabeth and Joe and all the talk of Marrickville/Tempe, known clubs, pubs of Kings Cross and Sydney didn’t engage me either. Though both Palmer as Elizabeth, and O’Sullivan as Joe both performed fine, it felt like the context didn’t particularly motivate them to any kind of performance beyond comfort, it felt safe. All I wanted to see happen was Elizabeth to leave Joe’s room. I didn’t feel like it was played out or written in a way strong enough to keep her in that room for the possible 14-18 hours that took place from the start of the play to the end.

Fourplay, plays out with potential and with room to grow to explore the text and feels like it retains more possibilities as a play. Ride on the other hand is restricted, measured and limited. Bodie is an excellent playwright whom has a comfortable relationship with dialogue that transfers beautifully into characters who are down to earth, relatable and plausible. Ride & Fourplay are two very different plays to which some adjustment is required to enjoy them accordingly and in their respective genres.