By David Brown
Although I missed David Brown’s first major play Keep Everything You Love, I was one of the many who were excited by QTC’s 2004 production of his Eating Ice Cream With Your Eyes Closed, finding the writing taut and the play edgy and suspenseful. Consequently I was really looking forward to seeing the development of this promising writer in The Estimator.
The original idea for the play has gone through umpteen drafts, been workshopped by Playlab, developed through workshops at the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference, shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award and further developed in conjunction with Queensland Theatre Company. Once selected for performance, the script has been modified throughout the rehearsal process and finally reached its world premier on 4 June.
So what went wrong? When I saw it on 8 June I found it flaccid, predictable, and tediously drawn-out with an improbable story-line, little development, and two ‘climaxes’ that left the audience unmoved. All this despite experienced direction, an effective set and very fine performances from the cast, who worked hard to inject life and interest into the clumsy text.
The audience did its best too, laughing dutifully when required and listening patiently to the ramblings of the central character – but they left the theatre (rather thankfully, I thought) with none of the buzz of excitement that a new play should generate. Maybe reviewers should always avoid opening nights, when the in-house chatter of those in the complimentary ticket club can mask the reactions of ordinary theatre-goers who have actually paid for their tickets. Or maybe I’m just sour at missing out on the drinks and nibblies?
The play concerns the plight of a young man (Martin) who calls at a dilapidated house to do an estimation for a removal company. He finds a messy interior, a young, recorder-playing girl (Sharday) and an old diabetic woman (Yonni) who falls on top of him, trapping him beneath her for most of the first half of the play. He is therefore forced to listen to the two talking inconsequentially, playing games and singing songs, occasionally finding himself an unwilling participant. Yonni falls asleep or into a coma from time to time, and Martin and Sharday find they have something in common – the untimely death of a father. In the second act the old woman’s daughter (Karen) appears and subjects Martin to the psychobabble of do-it-yourself life-enhancement techniques, ultimately making a (somewhat underwhelming and improbable) Revelation. That done, she lapses into an unexplained silence while Yonni divulges her Secret and the young man at long last, and to our relief, departs.
If this sounds a little Pinter-esque, forget it. The one thing Pinter knows about is how to engender audience involvement through economy and suspense – not qualities in evidence in this play.
What The Estimator does have are some fine set-pieces, particularly in the second act where Brown captures hilariously Karen’s attempts to steer Martin through the processes of a self-help workshop which she has attended, so that her ‘intervention’ can lead him to ‘healing’. Bridget Boyle gives Karen a nervous energy and earnestness that is entirely right, heightening the comic impact and injecting life and movement into what has been an essentially static play till then; the first act depending mainly on the youthful energy of Sharday. Natasha Wanganeen is perfectly cast in this role, which in less sure hands could have been embarrassingly smart or cute. She endows the fourteen year-old with a freshness and innocence that stops short of being cloying, and convinces us of a loving and sustaining relationship with her grandmother. Sharday is given the other set-pieces with which the play is larded – performing the music and song routines with just the right mixture of skill and awkwardness.
Carole Skinner as Yonni takes on the enormous task of making the garrulous and unattractive Yonni into a believable character, and it is greatly to her credit that she keeps the audience on-side with her throughout. Forced to spend most of the play either sitting on the floor or asleep on the couch, she has been given little scope to dominate the action, but uses her warm, husky voice to great and comic effect, alternately bullying and wheedling to get her own way.
The play hinges on the audience believing that the young man, once inside the house with its odd inhabitants, is powerless to leave. The actor is forced to spend around 20 minutes pretending he can’t get out from under the fallen Yonni, a feat which requires great improvisation skills from the performer and a suspension of disbelief that few audiences could maintain. Once mobile, Martin fails to leave, allegedly because he cannot find his folder, tie or socks; a device also somewhat problematic for both actor and audience. Remy Hii does well with this ineffectual character, making him as credible as the situation allowed and engaging our sympathy for actor and character alike.
For one who had hoped for so much from this play, the improbabilities of the plot and the awkward handling of the play’s movement (with characters conveniently falling asleep, going offstage to make endless and meaningless cups of tea, or left inexplicably onstage with no lines and nothing to do) made for a disappointing evening; excellent set, casting and performances notwithstanding.
David Brown is on record as saying that his Eating Ice Cream With Your Eyes Closed was consciously aimed at the sort of people who didn’t go to the theatre, the white, 40-something males living in regional Australia. I’m not sure what audience The Estimator is aimed at or what we are meant to take away from the play. There is a funny and deserved lampooning of the self-help industry and a suggestion that ordinary people muddle through and ‘move on’ from disappointments and disaster as best they can. But if there is anything more profound than this, sadly I missed it.
Directed by Jon Halpin
Playing until 7 July 2007: Evenings Wed-Sat 7:30pm, Tues 6:30pm, matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm
Running time: 2 hrs 20 mins, including 20 minute interval