Roundhouse Theatre (La Boite)


(Professional production)

The knives are out, all five of them, and it isnt just back-stabbing, but from the front, top, sideways and even underneath (ouch!).

The knives are now Christofle rather than Ikea, just as the bed sheets are silk and damask, and the locations Byron Bay and Port Douglas, all icons of the aspirational nouveau-riche who are David Williamsons current targets. (Although Im not sure that Gabriel Poole would be happy to be identified as the architect of the expensive beach house furnished with tacky 50-retro shagpile and vinyl pouffes Greg Clarkes concept is clever, but doesnt quite come off.)

And the stakes are higher an AC, the highest gong in the Australian Honours list, no less, or having the new wing of a major hospital named after you.

For me, Amigos is the most gratifying parable about modern society that David Williamson has written since After the Ball . The moral issues are clearly implied, but the way they are worked out is complex and ambiguous, and eventually there can be no sympathy for anyone except perhaps sad-sack Stephen, the drop-out of the four amigos, who have supposedly stayed friends because of their bronze-medal rowing triumph at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Thirty-six years later, Jim (Robert Colby, a delicious sex-sleaze) has become a millionaire businessman, Dick (Steven Tandy who, rumour has it, is moving to Queensland) is a heart surgeon with an ego problem, the fourth member of the team has died, presumably of an AIDS-related illness, and Stephen (Eugene Gilfedder in Michael Leunig mode) has retreated to a beach shack to be an unsuccessful writer.

The play purports to be about mateship and the ties that bind Australian men, but its success is that its much more than the boring alpha-male syndrome, which is so easy to mock. The women are equally important in the vicious games that these people play Sophie as Jims pretty new sex-toy wife (Ling-Hsueh Tang plays magnificently against type as a steely survivor); Hillary as the ex-nurse who married predictably up (I didnt know Sally McKenzie could be so deliciously sour); and Hillarys best friend, the unseen ex-wife of Jim, the dark figure whose new life sets the plot in motion.

Lots of scope here for revelations and game-plays, and Williamson makes the most of them, with twists and turns coming just when we are beginning to wonder whether this is going to turn into another Talking Heads .

The risk is that the audience will lose interest in these unlovable characters, but just when one little cat fight reaches its limits a new revelation comes along, and we are caught afresh in Williamsons tangled web. We are trapped between horror and laughter, because although Amigos is, like all Williamsons plays, about moral dilemmas too deep for his soft-target characters to cope with, as audience we are forced to confront them and be thankful we dont have to deal with them in our own lives.

The play was received coolly by southern critics, which makes me think about the strength that a different cast and director can add to a play. Sean Mee brings out the complexities in characters who could so easily be mocked for their superficiality, and his actors give him everything he wants.

Ive always been one of Williamsons most trenchant critics, but in Amigos he has a winner, a mature play that in the long-term will, Im sure, rank up there with The Removalists , Jugglers Three/Third World Blues , and After the Ball . Dont miss it.

Directed by Sean Mee

Playing until 12 March 2005: Tuesdays 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 8pm, with a 2pm matinee Saturday 12 March.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 17th February 2005)