Philtrum

Philtrum
By Anthea Greco. Directed by Peter Blackburn. North of Eight. The Portable, 3 Dawson Street, Brunswick VIC. 13 – 29 July 2018

Does a ‘normal family’ hold hands and say grace before the evening meal?  The family in Anthea Greco’s new play does.  That this ritual will turn out to be a veneer hiding some cruel and dirty secrets is her point.  The prayer over, patriarch Bill (Stephen Francis) carps and grumbles, and chivvies the kids: the eldest, grown-up lawyer Nikki (Faran Martin) and teen son Tom (Louis Corbett).  Meanwhile, daughter Laura (Tasha Sanders), who has a mental disability, reacts to the continually blaring television.  Christine (Annie Stanford) is the ineffectual peace-keeper mother who plays along with Bill, Mr Francis’ performance suggesting a bully who can only exert authority in his own home. 

Ms Greco’s clever writing, Peter Blackburn’s direction and the cast’s layered performances suggest that under the banter, or the sit-com comedic aggression, there’s a very real subtext: Bill resents Nikki’s being smart (or smarter than him) and young Tom, a f**k-up according to Bill, can do nothing right.  Nikki is febrile, quick to take offence.  What’s her real problem, we wonder.  Ms Martin has a warmth to her performance, which takes us past her character’s irritability.  The comedy doesn’t conceal the tension or the real anger that simmers in this ‘normal’ family. 

Things brighten when younger daughter Cathy (an appealing, bright-as-a-button performance from Jessica Martin) arrives home from overseas with new boyfriend Rob (James Cerche) in tow.  Mr Cerche judges his performance nicely: the much-too-nice outsider on his best behaviour, inspected and judged by a family who no doubt bears no resemblance to the family Cathy has described.  Not on this night, anyway. 

A believable contrivance empties the stage of all except newly home Cathy and put-upon Tom.  And now comes the reveal that is the real subject of the play, to describe which would be to spoil the rest.  Suffice to say that the entire family is shaken to its core, beginning with Cathy – and here Ms Martin does a nice transformation from cheerful insouciance to stunned and angry daughter.  Mr Blackburn suggests this family explosion with a stylised sequence that is effective if abruptly at odds with the naturalism of proceedings up to this point. 

The play shifts locale for its second half (via an ingenious but rather under-resourced design switch from James Lew) and into the aftermath.  The reveal is doubled: we find there’s another secret – and an irony in that it can’t be revealed to anyone beyond Julie (Emma Choy), a briskly sympathetic social worker.  There’s also a breathtakingly tactless blabbermouth, played by the playwright herself, Ms Greco, who could have a career in comedy performance as well as playwrighting.  Her character, Anita, is quite redundant, but the shock value lightens the sombre mood and allows Tom and Nikki to vent some bottled feeling.

Ms Greco’s text has the great virtue of making us pay attention, invest emotion and care about what happens next.  But there’s a problem here and that’s the perhaps under-developed text.  Speeches that tell us what we already know and a couple of characters that appear to have no dramatic function.  More seriously, Ms Greco seems to have written half a play.  As it ends – in its open-ended way – we feel, ‘Yes?  And?’  The writing is good, so we expect more than we get: we are, I think, disappointed.  Ms Greco leaves her characters with one again burying her pain and another denied the confrontation he and we expect.  This is the work of a promising writer who needs, I think, to face the challenge of paying off what she has set up.

(‘Philtrum’, by the way, is the shallow groove between the base of the nose and the top of the top lip.)

Michael Brindley  

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