Autumn in Perth yields a new season of original independent works at The Blue Room, and this season opens with a new work from the team at The Last Great Hunt called Old Love and a new play from the desk of playwright Tom Jeffcote called Armour.
Old Love by Chris Issacs and The Last Great Hunt
Premise: twenty-something male brings sixty-something female lover to dinner with his best friends. Hilarity and/or awkwardness ensues.
Chris Isaacs tackles a social taboo while exploring a theatrical convention, the dinner party play. While he acquits himself admirably, the production, directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler, is flawed and slightly misses the mark. Arielle Gray as Gabby is wildly exaggerated, and doesn’t allow herself much room to move with her portrayal. Right from the starting gate she’s off like a harridan on uppers and leaves us no chance to warm to her or sympathise with her character’s point of view. We are left to wonder why her partner Jim (Nick Maclaine), who seems such an affable, relaxed sort of guy, would ever choose to live through the constant disapproval and prickly demeanor Gabby appears to exhibit. But this is, after all, one of the show’s conventions, and there are countless examples of the nagging wife and the put-upon, doormat husband in drama and comedy. However, Gray seems to be in a farce, where the others seem to be in a simple domestic comedy. Why did Fowler leave the levels so unbalanced here?
Maclaine and Tim Watts as Robert give believable, consistent performances, but they are very much overshadowed by the histrionics of Gray and the sparkle of Nicola Bartlett. One thing is certain, having Bartlett in back-to-back seasons at The Blue Room (she was in the Summer Nights production Moving On Inc.) has been an absolute treat, as she brings such a unique presence to these productions. Her interpretation of the free-spirited Flo is dynamic and assured, and she has the men as well as the audience eating from the palm of her hand. I found myself wondering how Bartlett has found the experience of working with these young teams of actors, writers, and directors recently, but then I thought, shame on you Binford, this is exactly the sort of thing Old Love is trying to reject. We have a notion that there’s something fundamentally different between people of different age brackets, and that with age difference comes an obvious difference in perspective that is impossible to surmount or reconcile. As such, I think the best thing about this work is that it does invite us to examine these sorts of prejudices and take a look at our own personal assumptions about age. Isaacs writes with assurance, but he still seems to be finding his voice. There’s room to grow there and he’s smart, insightful and thoughtful with a natural gift for subtlety that will do him well as he (hopefully) begins to probe deeper into the realm of human dramatic conflict.
Armour by Tom Jeffcote
Premise: a men’s group goes to a Scout hall in the country to talk about their feelings. Men spill their guts, tempers flare, and male bonding happens.
Tom Jeffcote, like Chris Issacs, has also written a one-night, one-location four-hander, but this production is riddled with problems. The four characters are well conceived to offer a dynamic balance of personalities: we have a moderately repressed but patiently tolerant counsellor (Matthew Kiely), a fallen rock-and-roller (Ben Weirheim), an angry young man (Danen Engelenberg), and a stoic but strange SAS serviceman. Their ages range from early twenties to mid forties, and all have varying reasons for being involved in a men’s therapy group. Over the course of the hour and a half that we’re in this Scout hall with these four men, we learn all sorts of things about them as they circle around the topic at hand, which is supposed to be, chiefly, their feelings. About what? About the coffee the leader forgot to pack, about the ex-wives, about the PTSD, about the best friend who’s just killed himself, the missed opportunities, the regrets, the misdeeds, the failures…there are a hundred different possibilities for discussion topics available. Perhaps if the counsellor, Neil, had picked just one to focus on…
There are some inconsistencies about how Neil leads the proceedings and reacts to what he learns of each man. For instance, he’s been seeing a couple of the guys for weeks and weeks already, but then asks questions about their background that you would have thought would have already been covered in previous sessions. And when one character reveals a major violent streak, Neil doesn’t seem to be at all bothered by it; he smiles, nods, and brushes off the confession, moves on to the next character’s bit of backstory.
The end is incredibly cringeworthy in its overly optimistic resolution, to the point where you feel like the target audience must be much, much younger and/or more naive than we’d normally give a Blue Room audience credit for. The device that offers outside pressure on this group to expedite their bonding and/or character revelation is clumsy and obvious in its function within the play. The actors show promise for the most part, but Jeffcote is an inexperienced guide as a director, so we are left with moments of flatness where action and movement comes to a halt. The men seem to overcompensate for these dull moments by going way over the top when there is something to do.
Now, I’ve never sat in on a men’s group therapy session, so I’m unable to comment on whether the ways in which these men share and talk to each other are accurate. Of course, their reactions and stories are heightened for dramatic purposes, but I feel like this play represents a kind of shorthand version of the real struggles that men face when dealing with life’s problems and the perils of drugs, alcohol, depression and suicide. Depression and suicide are barely touched on here in favour of a laundry list of these characters’ worst moral offenses. In the end, the play strays away from its initial thesis and enters a minefield of situations and ideas that are too difficult to unpack in this context. Especially when you forget to pack the coffee.