Private Fears in Public Places

Cremorne Theatre, QPAC (Queensland Theatre Company)


Written by Alan Ayckbourn

Professional production

What a wonderful way to begin the theatrical year! Six of Brisbane’s finest actors (make that nine if you include the off-stage voices) in a recent play from Alan Ayckbourn that shows there are new tricks in the old dog yet, with a wickedly witty production from Michael Gow. I left the theatre glowing with enthusiasm, and so did the second-night audience.

I like going to second nights, because they’re a real test of a production. The hype of opening night is over, the actors’ adrenaline may not be as strong, and the audience is not the invited list of the usual freeloading suspects (I admit I’m usually one of them), but real people who have paid real money for their seats. They’re not necessarily going to be swept along by the hype, but want to get their money’s worth, and they certainly got it on Friday night.

One has the right to be a little suspicious of a stage play that contains 54 scenes in 110 minutes playing time. Surely it will be too jerky, too difficult for an audience to catch the resonances and interconnexions and, worst of all, there is always the suspicion that it has actually been written with the silver screen in mind, a trap that a couple of Australia’s playwrights have fallen into in the last few years. No, we feel, this is going to be too slick, too facile, and just too hard.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The play is a stunner, and the only times in its furious intensity when I got lost were when the various locations in the set (six of them on a staircase cleverly sketching out in visual shorthand the cultural backgrounds of the characters) became multi-functional, so that somehow characters became trapped in the wrong table/drawing room/office. This may have been a post-modern way of suggesting that we are all the same under the skin, but if it was, it was far too subtle for a play with such a firm insistence on social hierarchies.

The six characters are not so much in search of an author as solutions to their sad lives, for they are all losers in their own way. The brittle Nicola and dishonourably-discharged soldier Dan (Sarah Kennedy and Paul Bishop) are unhappily engaged and looking for a new flat; emotionally awkward real-estate salesman Stewart and his desperate and dateless sister Imogen (Bryan Probets and Louise Brehmer) keep their real needs and behaviour hidden from each other; Ambrose (Chris Betts) divides his time between tending the bar in a posh hotel and at home catering to the impossible demands of his horrible bed-ridden father (voiced by Bob Newman); while pious Christian Charlotte (Helen Howard) alternates between doing marshmallowy good and living a private life that literally shocks the pants off – well, let’s leave it there. Let’s just say that the videotape (Barbara Lowing and Daniel Poole do brilliant multi-voicing here) that she lends poor simple Stewart starts something that triggers emotions and consequences that are never resolved.

That’s one of the cleverest things about the play, that although it seems to be such a set-piece that you can see all the twists of the plot coming fifteen minutes in advance, the big surprise is the ending which, rather than typing up the strings neatly, leaves these people as the losers they always have been and will be, who have learned nothing from their convoluted adventures.

The cast is so good that it would be impossible to praise them individually, for this is one of the best pieces of ensemble playing that I’ve seen in Brisbane for a long time. It’s not just the writing that encourages this, but the tight-knit team that the six actors have developed into, and it shows Michael Gow’s mastery as a director. So rather than single each one out, I’d like to mention some of the scenes that I found particularly impressive, which will also give you a flavour of the play.

Middle-class house-hunters (and long-suffering real estate agents) will recognise immediately the uneasy balance between real estate lies and impossible customer demands, and both Sarah Kennedy and Bryan Probets bring these clichés to squirming life. We’ve all seen the single woman in the frumpy frock (if I were Louise Brehmer I’d never forgive Bruce McGiven for that design) sitting impatiently at the café table waiting for the blind date who doesn’t show; and Helen Howard’s transformation from the drab bible-bashing Charlotte into something completely different is no less funny for being so predictable. The middle-aged man sitting next to me was practically wetting his pants.

For me, probably the funniest scene was Bryan Probets (the hapless real-estate salesman) watching what he and we know is an excruciatingly dull religious program about Songs that Changed my Life (think Songs of Praise on the ABC, but 15 times more sentimental), which suddenly morphs into its polar opposite. The effect this has on him as he eats his TV supper has to be seen to be believed.

The domestic trials of bar-tender Ambrose made me weep, while Paul Bishop self-deluding himself into an importance he neither has nor deserves caught this flashy type to exquisite perfection.

There’s a undercurrent of pain running through the script, for these six people are some of life’s tragics, and there’s been some criticism that the play and this production make light of them. But I think that adds a bitter edge to the humour, because we’re all losers, after all, and if you can’t laugh at life’s minor tragedies, what’s it all abart then, Alfie? There are enough resonances with real life to bring home the sub-text powerfully, if that’s what you want. Otherwise, just sit back and laugh at some excoriating social comedy in as fine a production as you’re likely to see.

Directed by Michael Gow

Designer Bruce McKinven

Playing until 17 March 2007: Monday & Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday 1pm, Sunday 2pm

Duration : 1 hour 50 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 15th February 2007)