Sydney Fringe Festival – Reginald Theatre Seymour Centre
Play by N. Gregory Finger
Directed by Stuart Owen
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.