STARC Productions
Bakehouse Theatre
Until 19 Oct 2019

Review by John Wells

How many plays begin with a frenzied sex scene? Go on, name them. David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss” opens with a bit of stand-up cunnilingus, I recall; here, Johnny is enthusiastically boning Frankie from behind as the lights go up. Starting with a bang indeed.

This is a one-night-stand between the charismatic short-order-cook Johnny and the vivacious but guarded waitress Frankie. Terrence McNally’s late-1980s play is brought to life with gusto, nuance and impeccable acting commitment.

Frankie and Johnny are both wounded, scarred casualties carrying the fears of approaching middle-age. But while Frankie sees this encounter as a momentary escape from a bleak working life, and tries to boot Johnny out the door, Johnny is fired with romantic zeal. He sees a ragged beauty and a hope for the future – almost an epiphany – in Frankie, and begins a night-long quest to win her over. Their back-and-forth jousting is by turn raw, intense, poetic and confronting. It is not quite a tug of war; it is more like a complicated dance where neither Frankie not Johnny know the steps.

This production is a strong success: Frankie and Johnny are played with delicate fearlessness by Stefanie Rossi and Marc Clement. They are grounded by Tony Knight’s assured direction, which pushes the emotional intensity to the fore without allowing the fizzing dialogue to overwhelm the quieter moments.

Rossi and Clement have a wonderful earthy chemistry. While they are clearly at ease with each other as actors, they are believable as two workmates who have flung themselves into a potentially unwise sexual encounter. They spar, fight, soften and circle around each other with skill and complexity.

There are some minor faults in this largely impressive show. McNally’s play feels slightly contrived and over-written. Some of the attitudes jar with current mores; in particular, Johnny’s refusal to leave Frankie’s apartment and his unwavering pushiness feels domineering and slightly creepy. And – how else to say this? – Rossi and Clement are simply too pretty for their roles. Their physical attractiveness means Frankie and Johnny’s weariness, fears and desperation do not have the heart-breaking sting they might have had. Perhaps Knight should have taken them out the back and roughed them up a bit…

Starc Productions’ aim is to bring quality performance-driven theatre to local audiences. Here, they succeed admirably.