Perfect Skin

(La Boite Theatre)


From the novel by Nick Earls, adapted for the stage by Janis Balodis

Professional production

The Nick Earls bandwagon rolls on, with yet another coming-of-age fantasy about a young Brisbane man trying to relate to Life, the Universe and Everything. Perfect Skin is, I think, the fifth of his novels to be adapted for the stage, but here Jon, the protagonist, is older than Earls’ previous heroes by ten years or so.

He’s not necessarily wiser, however, although one would think that becoming a widower and a father on the same day would have forced him into some kind of instant maturity. Jon is a dermatologist, surely the second-least desirable medical career after proctology, but the speciality is necessary for the metaphor of the play, which is about skin and layering, and superficiality and the truth behind the façade, and beauty and its depth, and all kind of other clever things, which could have become very smart-Alick in the hands of a lesser playwright than Janis Balodis, who has adapted the novel for the stage.

Balodis’ dry understated dialogue saves the script both from an overly academic approach and from the potential sentimentality that lurks under the text of the novel, and even Earls’ regular running gags, in this case the sacrificial domestic cat, take on a painful edge when the stuffed toy is adroitly manipulated by the cast into semi-reality, and its sufferings become more than a joke.

Under the surface frivolity of the plot (here’s the skin metaphor again) there’s real tragedy, not because Jon has been widowed and left to bring up his daughter single-handed, but because of the circumstances in which little Lily was conceived and born, and the ramifications of that for the father-daughter relationship, especially when Ashley, a potential new love, jogs into his life. But as this isn’t made manifest until near the end of the play, we can go along with the very funny situational dialogue without worrying about what lies beneath if we chose not to.

Philip Cameron-Smith as Jon is the centre of the play, an endearing performance marred by badly muffled diction or was it just the notorious Roundhouse acoustics swallowing the voices again? The same problem occurred with Candice Storey as Ashley, although this may be forgiven in her professional debut in a very difficult theatre.

The others Mark Conaghan, Lewis Jones and Caroline Kennison are old enough hands to have come to terms with the acoustic, and so managed much better, with the result that their performances were much more convincing. A shame really, because Philip Cameron-Smith was trying hard, and he has a delicious role which he wasn’t able to exploit to the full because of the auditory problem.

Part of the fun in his character is that we both laugh at and sympathise with this bumbling 30-something guy in his current predicament. He loves Lily (played by a baby doll) but is stuck with her, and relies heavily on his friends (and seemingly doting parents) to help him out whenever he needs some free time. At the time of the play, however, Lily is only six months old, still at the adorable non-ambulatory stage, but what’s going to happen when she becomes a mobile ankle-biter? Will his friends and colleagues be quite as besotted with her then, and as willing to baby-sit? It’s just as well that the possibility of Tru Lerv occurs at the end of the play.

Jon works in a group practice, where his colleagues are also his friends, especially because his dead wife was also a member of the practice. In the play, all three are fall guys to his semi-tragic presence, and they make a brilliantly contrasting trio. Lewis Jones is the laconic wise-cracker with a quip for every occasion, a role which he plays with great skill and obvious delight, while Caroline Kennison in her dual personae as colleague and tough office-manager Wendy, and her flaky 1980’s caricature sister Kate (she of the put-upon cat and the ’80s hair), makes the family resemblances and differences believable as well as very funny.

Mark Conaghan as Oscar has the best role of all, for as well as being a gormless colleague, he gets to take over from the stuffed cat and become its animated alter ego, as funny as the Dave Hughes interviews in The Glass House.

This is why the play works so well, because playwright Balodis has distanced the audience from the serious/sentimental potential of the plot. Everything is taken out of the reality box, examined objectively and then put back, providing at least three degrees of separation and a much more rewarding experience for the audience than just having to sit back and enjoy an amiable romp.

But for those who want it, the play can be taken at this easy level, and the production loses nothing for those who just want light entertainment. But Balodis’s script, Scott Witt’s sharp-edged direction and Alison Ross’s multi-layered set allow those who want more to dig below the surface and see what really lies beneath that perfect skin.

Directed by Scott Witt

Playing until 3 June 2006 (Tuesday and Wednesday 6.30pm, Thursday – Saturday 8pm, matinees 10, 16, 23 & 30 May at 11am and 3 June 2pm)

Duration : 2 hours 30 minutes, including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 11th May 2006)