By Henri Szeps
This is the second one-man show based on his own life that Henri Szeps has written, performed, and toured. In the first, I am Not a Dentist, premiered in 1997, Szeps addressed head-on what must have been a galling realisation for an actor of his range and experience: that he was known outside of Sydney primarily for his role as Garry McDonald’s dentist brother in the long-running TV series Mother and Son.
In fact, Szeps had enjoyed a varied and successful career in both Australia and England, studying Method acting under Hayes Gordon at the ground-breaking Ensemble Theatre in Sydney in the 1960s before moving to England where, among other things, he played in Shakespeare with the prestigious Prospect Theatre Company. Since his return to Australia in the mid-70s he has performed and starred in plays by Neil Simon, David Williamson, David Mamet, Bertolt Brecht, Patrick White and Arthur Miller, and a variety of musicals, films and TV shows.
In the early 1990s Szeps starred in two significant one-man shows: a translation of Patrick Suskind’s Double Bass, and Sky, a play written specially for him by John Misto. Plays that are essentially monologues are like the long-distance solo yacht races of acting and the strain of attempting them can defeat even the most accomplished performers. For some, however, the experience of taking on an audience single-handed can become addictive. Henri Szeps may well be one of these, and the decision to write his own material followed naturally.
A master of seemingly effortless timing and rapport with an audience, it is these skills that Szeps employed in his first venture into autobiographical theatre where, through a mixture of personal and theatrical anecdotes, he allowed the audience glimpses of his early life in a refugee camp, foster home, and orphanage in Europe and moved on to trace his development in the craft that was to dominate his life performance.
However, despite the success of this show, now nearly 10 years old, Szeps explains that he grew to feel increasingly that a whole area of his life to which he had devoted an equal amount of time and energy had been glossed over, namely marriage and parenting. And thus the idea for Why Kids? was conceived. Covering a little of the same ground as his earlier show so as to demonstrate the extent of the baggage he brought to the daunting task of life-long commitment and responsibility, Szeps lays bare his insecurities, failings and perceptions to a captive and captivated audience. The story he tells is both funny and moving without being mawkish, and is punctuated with particularly appropriate songs, mostly from the musicals he loves.
Much of what Szeps has to say about the complexities of marriage and parenting in Why Kids? is amusing, insightful, and thought-provoking. To this reviewer’s taste, however, among the wry comments and home-spun philosophy there was at times a bit too much of a preacherly tone. Indeed, given the average age of the audience of which I was a part, it seemed at times a little like a master class in egg sucking. I have also to admit that, in the flatter parts of the evening and there were some I kept being drawn back to the illusion that I was watching Dr Phil in full flight.
But this is to give an unfair impression of the show as a whole because, of course, Szeps is not a philosopher, an educator, or a relationship counsellor. He is an actor, a performer, an entertainer; and in these roles he is an expert. The show tells a story which is interspersed with anecdotes, jokes and, most successfully, songs and these give Szeps the opportunity to do what he does best. When he adopts a character or an accent he shines, when he recites a poem by Khalil Gibran on children he makes it sound profound, when he smoothly segues into a song we want more.
Why Kids? is sponsored by the National Performing Arts Touring Program, Playing Australia, and has been on the road since the end of May. It requires a lot of hard work and stamina to take a show like this through regional New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, West Australia and the Northern Territory and we are fortunate that we have performers and sponsors willing to take on the challenge. These productions play only for a day or two in Brisbane before moving on, so you have to be quick to catch them. They feature artists of international standing, the QUT Gardens Point Theatre is a charming venue, parking is free and secure, and publicly funded arts programs such as this deserve support. So, watch out for the next one.
Played Thursday, Friday, 29, 30 June, 8pm. Saturday 1 July, 2pm, 8pm
Running time including interval: 2 hrs 10 mins