GOOD COOK. FRIENDLY. CLEAN. ★½
SBW Stables, May 11, until June 16
Reviewed by JOHN SHAND
Oh, dear. Somehow this play sneaked all the way to the stage without someone whispering, "It's not ready." While not entirely without merit, that merit adorns a small proportion of what is only a 70-minute work, anyway. Otherwise it is beleaguered with problems of characterisation, narrative, dramatic trajectory and dialogue, and these flaws have only been amplified by the acting and directing.
Playwright Brooke Robinson's idea was good. The play's quirky title, you see, is an advertisement. Sandra, at 58 and receiving chemotherapy, is lumbered with group living as the only affordable means of accommodation. Ejected from the place she's shared for the last four years, she finds that her age bumps her to the back of the queue when auditioning for a room.
Robinson's commendable intention was to show how the descent to homelessness is only a hop, step and stumble away for us all. Whereas Daniel Keen's play Mother (earlier this year) dealt with the issue in flashbacks from the perspective of someone already sleeping rough, Robinson wanted to present the unfolding of that downward slide.
Directed by Marion Potts for Griffin Theatre Company, the production has Tara Morice as Sandra, Fayssal Bazzi playing assorted unnamed males and Kelly Paterniti assorted unnamed females – these latter being the people whose ads Sandra answers in ever growing desperation. She clumsily tries to be who she thinks they want her to be, while they, all a generation younger, only see her age.
Robinson depicts all members of this generation (of which she is a member) as being some combination of cruel, selfish, nasty, superficial, self-absorbed, asinine and addled. Surely there was more poignancy to be had if some of the people rejecting Sandra fully understood the implications for her, and are conflicted by that. The only genuinely dramatic confrontation comes in Scene Four when one of the males aggressively quizzes her to test her memory for signs of dementia.
An ever bigger issue is that Sandra, herself, is charmless, and Morice and Potts have been unable to ladle enough empathy into this charmless vessel to make us care. So for 70 minutes we watch unlovely people behaving badly, without even having the good grace to be funny while they're about it. Robinson does attempt humour, primarily satirical, although these efforts would be shamed by many an undergraduate revue. The exception is Bazzi's fun turn as an out-of-control four-year-old.
The dialogue in the opening scene (where Sandra is given the flick by her current cohabitants) is initially quite promising, with Robinson adroitly using overlapping lines to realise the situation's inherent awkwardness. But too soon the writing becomes self-conscious and laboured, with a relentless, breathless quality that lacks rhythm and restricts character definition. Her approach seems to have left the actors and director in two minds: whether to shoot for naturalism, or to treat the shorthand, stabbing phrases as an edgier form of theatre; as some millennial bastard-child of ritualism.
Patches of it are more successful on the page than in this production, with Bazzi and Paterniti working too hard at manufacturing characters out of shadows. Morice, meanwhile, plays Sandra as mortally wounded from the outset, and therefore she lacks emotional head-room in documenting her descent, so we feel nothing at her ultimate breakdown; just a vague awareness of a failed emotional climax.
One's eye, meanwhile, is diverted by designer Melanie Liertz's clever depiction of a room in a state of both decay and partial renovation – evoking memories of group living that were probably best left dormant.
John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award
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