By Louise Marshall and Francesca Gasteen
I am always intrigued by what audiences are thinking as they leave the theatre after a play. Young Brisbanites emerging from the new play One by One by local writer Louise Marshall may well be thinking: “Maybe moving back home with the oldies till I can afford a place of my own may not be such a bad idea after all!”
After a dark and disturbing action sequence, the play opens with four housemates, clearly struggling with money problems, looking for a fifth person to take the empty room and share household expenses. The characters of these four are quickly established. Central to the household is the dependable Sophie, who works long hours in a menial job to support her pot-smoking younger brother Nicky and domineering fiancé Luke through Uni. Sophie is also the major support for Ashley, a flakey shop-aholic who spends and parties to escape her insecurities. Into this mix comes Jo, a young professional woman whose strong personality affects each of the others in turn.
Louise Marshall and Francesca Gasteen (who play Jo and Sophie) have committed themselves to writing and producing challenging theatre, designed to entice younger audiences away from mass-produced entertainment into live performances. Certainly, on the night I saw the show the audience was full of twenty-somethings who loved the music, picked up on all the pop-culture references, and could well have been recognising current or past housemates in the characters on-stage .
Women in the audience may also have identified, in the opening scenes at least, with Jo, Sophie or Ashley. I don’t, however, envisage many of the men in the audience wanting to see anything of themselves in the dependent and irresponsible Nicky (Peter Norton) or in the selfish user, Luke (Gavin Edwards). This is a play that provides, as its writers intended, strong roles for women, and Francesca Gasteen, Louise Marshall and Renee Kirkman (who plays Ashley) make the most of the opportunities given them. They are a nicely contrasted trio and each actor gives a sense of authenticity to her character that makes them all attractive, flawed as they are.
The men’s roles are less well-developed, though again the characters are well-contrasted and the actors succeed in making us want to shake them (in the case of Nicky) or punch them (in the case of Luke) from quite early on. Luke does, in fact, get a bit of a working over by Jo in the course of the play, and the fight scenes are particularly effective, even on the small stage at the Metro Arts where the closeness of the audience can often make for problems.
One by One is an apt title for this show, not only because of its focus on each of the characters in turn, but also in terms of its subject matter. Sometimes it seems that, one by one, the once taboo and now almost obligatory ingredients of sex, drugs, strong language, violence, homosexuality, homophobia and lesbianism are brought in, with greed and corruption added so that an audience can feel at home in a play for our times.
The major problem in the current production lies in the episodic structure of the play. The action is made up of countless short scenes no problem for film or TV where quick or slow fades maintain continuity. In a theatre, however, the stop-start irritation of endless partial blackouts with stage hands rushing to rearrange props disturbs the engagement an audience needs with the play. Many of these scene changes were minor and unnecessary and, with a little imagination, could be eliminated, relying on a quick fade down then up of the lighting to establish a time lapse.
Indeed, it is in the longer scenes, where the situation is established and the characters have time to develop, that the strength of the writing is evident, making the first half of the play the more satisfying for this reviewer. The decision to take the play from psychological interplay to a melodramatic and bloody ending makes for opportunities for strong physical action as the two predators fight it out, and is certainly in keeping with current film tropes. However, the danger of losing the credibility of character and the audience involvement in the development of the relationships is a big risk. Audiences must decide for themselves whether it comes off.
One by One is the first of a number of future productions by Loulabelle and Frangipani Productions. Brisbane audiences have already found this play to be a very promising beginning.
Directed by Sandra Harman
Playing until Saturday 7 May
Running time including interval approximately 1 hour 45 minutes