Small Mercies

(La Boite)


The short play is a difficult art form. To develop character, raise issues and tell a story worth telling or make a point worth making is demanding of an author. Moreover, the shortness of the piece demands that performance will normally be in the context of other short plays, reducing the “stand alone” effect.

This collection by Daniel Keane is an interesting and partly successful bunch. Shared among two directors (Fraser Corfield and Nadine McDonald) they are for the most part about ordinary people and situations. Indeed the very ordinariness of the characters is quite compelling. They’re knockabout Aussies, battlers, generally not very bright, who’ve been hurt in some way. Sadly, the plays are all pessimistic: there’s not much sign of redemption here.

One tale, “Neither Lost Nor Found”, explores a tense mother-daughter relationship: a disturbed 13-year-old (Yasmin Quemard) vents her anger at a mother (Monette Lee) who had relinquished her to foster care but had now taken her back. The uneven thawing of the tenseness in the relationship is fascinating to watch, and the two actors do very well in portraying their mixed feelings and different forms of outreach.

In “Untitled Monologue” a mostly gentle boofhead of a young man in a city rooming house writes touching and revealing letters to his father outlining his frustrating search for work and the trouble into which his enforced idleness leads him. Hayden Spencer captures the young man’s helpnessness and his affection for his non-responding father, while the script underlines the futility of his life in the city.

Outstanding among the set of plays is “To Whom It May Concern”, about a terminally-ill father’s increasingly desperate attempts to find a carer for his severely mentally handicapped adult son. Michael Forde is simply superb as the distressed dad whose affection for his son is cloaked in gruffness. The text is tight, its pregnant pauses helping evoke an atmosphere of tense forboding. This would have to be the best short play to have been staged in Brisbane this year.

Most of the plays use extended monologue, a technique I find rather trying. In “To Whom It May Concern” and “Untitled Monologue” the talk is broken up by non-vocal communication interactions from others. Maybe it’s because I’ve had to listen to too many lectures and public orations, but my mind starts to wander when one person’s spiel goes on and on. Thus I found it difficult to come to grips with either the first or last play of the five, the multiple-viewpoint “Violin” or the survival story embodied in “The Rain”, notwithstanding good performances.

The production involves about 20 QUT drama students as extras in several of the plays. Although a good idea in principle to involve students on-stage in professional theatre, I found their presence distracting. They tended to clutter up the limited performance space at La Boite (and incidentally the seating is in horseshoe shape rather than theatre-in-the-round for the second consecutive production). In representations of crowd scenes or passers-by, the text would have been better served by calls on the imagination.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Wed 10th October 2001)