It is a pleasure to be able to review a play where the main problem is the risk of running out of superlatives. In Alive at Williamstown Pier the very small Brisbane green Theatre Company has produced just such a play, one that could hold its head high on any stage. This is a production in which there has been a perfect marriage between the actors and the author, harmonising in a seamless combination of intelligence, heart, wit and sensitivity.
And this relationship is an important one, because this is a case where it is not just the play that’s the thing, but also the playwright’s powerful presentation of his struggles with the manic depression that has dogged his life for many years. To be able to reveal himself so nakedly takes a lot of courage. To do it so publicly also opens up the possibility that some of the audience may be drawn to attend by a degree of voyeurism, or simply an interest in the illness. And if that was all there was to the play, it would still be of interest for its educational value. But, happily for all of us, Neil Cole is a remarkably talented writer, who is able to move his audience effortlessly from hilarity to heartbreak, and back again. So it is good news that since this first, prize-winning, autobiographical play, he has already written two more, on quite different topics.
Here, however, he has given us a finely crafted view of mental illness from the inside out. As such, it is interesting to compare his play with its predecessor at La Boite, which was also a semi-autobiographical first play about mental illness, but from the outside looking in. The laugh lines in Svetlana in Slingbacks were etched into the tragedy of a ’60s migrant family imploding through the destructive force of a mother’s mental illness. And the impact on family life is a recurring theme, also, in the modern setting of Alive at Williamstown Pier. Nonetheless, its take-home message is a much more hopeful and positive one, delivered by someone who has been through the mill, and seen that it can, sometimes, be survived.
The quality of the writing is matched by the quality of the acting. James Kable gives the central character of Dave a core of vulnerability and warmth while shifting convincingly into the turbulent extremes of his illness. His struggles to get help through the system are delivered with a fine sense of irony, and psychiatrists could do worse than come and see how they look from the patient’s perspective.
The three actors who play the psychiatrists, and all the other roles, do so with superb style. Elise Greig, David Clendinning and Hayden Spencer are each required to switch to and fro among a multiplicity of characters, and they succeed in making each of their characters a distinctive individual through the sheer power of their craft. Perhaps the most noteworthy example in terms of transformation by dint of body language and voice, is that of the very young Greig and Spencer into brilliantly aged, and quite vicious, lawn bowlers. This has to be seen to be believed.
Spencer is an exciting new actor, whose role as Mick, Dave’s fellow patient and friend, is one of the hilarious and touching highlights of the play. Greig shows that she is a gifted comedian, in a series of sparkling and exuberant performances, but she is equally able to take on the complex role of a troubled and insecure psychiatrist. And as for Clendinning, well, hello, David, it’s so good to have you back where you belong. For those of us who remember a time when no major production (theatrical or operatic) was complete without the multi-talented Clendinning in a featured role, it’s good to see him back on the boards, and performing with such verve and gusto.
He, and all the actors, do a masterful job of maintaining the delicate balance between the emotional depth of the play and a physicality that demands and gets fitness, timing and, occasionally, an almost balletic synchronisation among its players. All this was done on a stage set that is most effective as the pier, and everywhere else in the play, by dint of a minimalist design, and clever lighting. While it all works well as theatre-in-the-round, perhaps the volume of the waves could be turned down a bit, so that Dave’s monologues can be equally well heard all around, no matter which direction he is facing.
Director Ian Lawson describes the producers’ view of Alive as having set up camp “in the living room of our minds”. Those who would like to share that experience can do so by seeing this brilliant production of a brave new play that blurs the barriers between them and us, whichever side we’re on.