Joh Hartog Productions
Bakehouse Theatre
Until 15 Jun 2019

Review by John Wells

This is a good production. But it is a frustrating production that was almost doomed to be underwhelming because of the structural faults of the text. The good direction, snappily-executed lighting and convincing performances all lift the play into a mildly entertaining show, but these positives are undermined by a poor script.

German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig pitches his action deep into suburban melodrama: a self-satisfied couple, Liz and Frank, are holding a welcome home dinner party for their friends, Carol and Martin, doctors who have just returned from working in Africa. The couples have not seen each other for six years, and their lives have moved along separate trajectories. The old friends discover conflicts, bitchy jealousies and hidden secrets as the disastrous dinner party lurches into mayhem.

Schimmelpfennig plays with the linear structure: the action stops and characters break to address the audience directly, sometimes revealing the truth, sometimes commentating, sometimes moving forward or back in time. A line will have different meanings depending on where it is placed: an innocuous comment becomes meaningful when it is repeated later, or when it is juxtaposed against things we later know about the characters. This is clever and engaging at first, but it soon becomes tedious, and then irritating. These pauses lose their sharpness and interrupt the action as the play progresses; it is particularly annoying that after each little interlude, the play rewinds a few lines and then hits play again, sapping the narrative of momentum and pace. Stephen Dean’s lighting design is admirably precise with many quick changes as the action stops and starts.

Schimmelpfennig reflects on Western paternalism, suburban inertia, female rivalry, and middle-class guilt, but the writing lacks emotional precision, intensity and bite. It’s hard to care about any of this foursome. (There are much better examinations of suburban angst: we miss the forensic insight of Ayckbourn, the roguish misandry of La Bute, or the fury of Reza, for example.)

This production’s real successes are the fluid direction and the very strong ensemble. Director Joh Hartog balances the cast well; he paces the action as expertly as the disjointed text will allow. Hartog’s direction is ably assisted by effective and skilled acting. Brendan Cooney is excellent: genial, alcoholic, and almost avuncular, his Martin is full of unspoken horrors and festering, hidden injustices. This is a well-judged, subtle performance. Krystal Brock (Carol) gives a powerful portrayal; she hints at raw disappointments and regrets, controlling her seething anger until it cracks open. The chafing tension in Martin and Carol’s marriage is convincing. Lucy Markiewicz (Liz) is deliciously smug and competitive, and her play-acting with the titular Peggy Pickit (a plastic doll) is beautifully puerile. David Hirst (Frank) is a natural comedian; his over-eager, funny duffer husband is a sweet piece of comedic acting.