“this beautifully presented play exposes pertinent questions about societal responsibility, and prejudice“
Troupe presents a new adaptation by Simon Reade of Christopher Isherwood’s genre-defining novel. Set in California in 1962, the play follows a day in the life of college lecturer, George; a middle-aged, gay Englishman coming to terms with the isolation caused by the sudden death of his partner Jim.
The play opens with George (Theo Fraser Steele) sleeping – a single man in a single bed. Two Paramedics (Phoebe Pryce & Freddie Gaminara) appear spirit-like running through a checklist of George’s awakening, helping him to wash, get dressed and start his day. The dialogue runs as a narrative, a commentary. The ghost of Jim (Miles Molan) wanders through the apartment and kisses George good morning.
For the first part of the day, we see George driving to work, teaching his students, and shopping. But a meeting of the neighbours illustrates the daily prejudice George must face. His college class turns into a discussion of the minority versus the majority and making food choices becomes pointless when one is cooking for just one. George wallows in his isolation. Fraser Steele is perfect in this role: in a smart suit and tie, thick glasses and brilliantined hair, speaking in a rich sardonic baritone, he looks and sounds the part.
The first-rate ensemble comes and goes around George who is ever-present on stage, entering and exiting through the audience seated on three sides of the action. Minimal props are used and versatile trucks are slid or rotated to form the bed, a car, a dining table. (Set and Costume Designer Caitlin Abbot). The movement is slick, marred only be the occasional masking. One scene in the far corner of the stage, where George sits on the toilet, is totally lost, at least from my seat (Director Philip Wilson). The subtle use of sound effects is excellent (Beth Duke) – George urinating, honking his car horn, or in one delightful moment, George’s books talking to him: “One at a time” says George as the books all gibber away together.
The second half brings with it an unexpected change in style, and we hear more about characters other than just George. Life-long English friend Charley (Olivia Darnley), another lonely outsider, wants to get closer to George but he pushes her away. Darnley’s portrayal of a G.I. bride, abandoned by both husband and teenage son, is dynamic and moving.
The following scene in which George meets his student Kenny (Miles Molan) in a bar is the standout scene of the evening. Kenny is loud, brash, and wearing the tightest of t-shirts. The simmering conversation between the two brims with unspoken lust and sexual tension.
George returns to his single bed, drunk, and the Paramedics reappear in their hospital whites with their clip boards to see the day through to its conclusion.
Does this audience feel empathy for George? His situation is certainly tragic but much of his loneliness is self-inflicted. He doesn’t know how to move on from his past to find a new present. We can see George as a portrayal of Everyman. Or more correctly Every(gay)man. And through him, this beautifully presented play exposes pertinent questions about societal responsibility, and prejudice. And pleas for our understanding of people’s hidden loneliness, isolation and otherness.
“the empty stage makes it difficult not to disengage with the narrative at every scene change”
Behind sheets of plastic that reflect red lighting, magazine covers that feature naked women are plastered across the walls. This is the backdrop to our narrative, a revival of Sarah Daniels’ radical play ‘Masterpieces’ first produced in 1983, which discusses the possible ramifications of the casual consumption of porn on everyday society and the way that women are viewed and treated as a result of that. We begin at a dinner party where three women endure their husbands sharing rape jokes, sparking Rowena’s own investigation into porn and its effect on the way men see women, with extreme consequences.
Olivia Darnley plays Rowena and delivers a standout performance, tight, energetic and committed. Darnley approaches the role with a fantastic balance of warmth and strength, and doesn’t waste a word of this well-written script. Rob Ostlere is strong as Yvonne’s horrible husband, but otherwise the male characters are one dimensional, not helped by predominantly weak performances. Sophie Doherty’s Jennifer starts promisingly but quickly becomes generalised and undecided in her character choices and uncertain in her movement. Doherty also has a tendency to swallow her words so that we lose moments of comedy in the text. Whilst Tessie Orange-Turner has some lovely moments, she stumbles over her words and seems to be constantly ‘acting’, so it is increasingly difficult to believe in or empathise with her, a trap that many of the actors fall into in this production.
Melissa Dunne’s directorial choices are clumsy and lack detail. Full wine glasses are refilled and the same pile of laundry is unfolded and refolded before our eyes over and over again. In multiple scenes there is an overuse of movement with no reason behind it, people sitting down and standing up, or even circling the stage in what is clearly a device, rather than a character motivated movement. The scene changes are achingly long, often ten seconds of wasted empty stage for no apparent reason as we listen to music of the era. Whilst music early on helps set the scene, the continued use of it between every scene change (of which there are many) is ineffective, protracted and grating, and the empty stage makes it difficult not to disengage with the narrative at every scene change. Whilst the set design (by Verity Quinn) is visually appealing it adds little to the narrative itself, and is unhelpful when it comes to scene changes.
Reviving this play in a relevant way is no easy feat as the conversation has moved on so far from the concrete anti-porn message of the piece. Daniels’ narrative insists on a direction correlation between violence and pornographic images and films, and dismisses any idea that women might enjoy sex, sex toys and pornography themselves. It is not the nuanced discussions we are used to surrounding these topics today, however Daniels’ play still has the potential to be topical and contemporary in its portrayal of rape culture, and the empowering narratives of four women refusing to accept cheating husbands and abusive bosses as the norm. However Dunne’s direction does not push this piece far enough, and it falls short of what it could achieve.
‘Masterpieces’ is a disappointing revival of a well-written and potentially extremely topical and exciting play, let down by weak, over-acted performances and ineffective directorial choices.