Adelaide Repertory Theatre
The Arts Theatre
Until 29 Jun 2019

Review by Sarah Westgarth

I often bemoan the lack of Australian theatre to get produced on amateur stages, so it's always worth celebration and support when a new and contemporary work has the chance to be seen. Brenton Whittle is a well-known figure of the Australian stage and screen, and this production of “Well Shut My Mouth” is the premiere of his new play.

The story begins with the death of William Clarence “Clarry” Hobbs, the husband of Mary, father to Andy, Betty and Craig, and grandfather to Betty’s children, Tambourine and Billy. In the direct aftermath of the loss of their patriarch, we follow the family as they process their grief, plan the memorial service, and navigate their relationships with each other. Not letting death stop him from having a say, every so often the action is paused for Clarry himself to sit up from his coffin and share his thoughts about his new situation, and remembering those he left behind. It’s a premise that is fertile ground from exploring complex family dynamics and the nature of loss, but Whittle doesn’t do much with it here. Taking place over just three days, the play lacks a strong, driving plot; there is no major conflict to work through or challenge to overcome, and none of the characters have a clear, defining arc. Of course, it is first and foremost a comedy, so you could argue these elements could take a backseat in service to getting laughs. Unfortunately, the humour usually comes from the most obvious places, and all too often relies on stereotypes, derogatory remarks, or casual sexism to land. (More than once the punchline involves an older male relative commenting on the teenaged Tambourine’s sexual appeal or activity.)

The most egregious of jokes centre around Craig, the youngest son of the Hobbs family who is openly gay and dresses in women’s clothing. Multiple times the expected laugh depends on characters just looking at him and reacting with shock or disgust, and several comments are made that imply there is something severely wrong with him, even discussing over who is to ‘blame’ for the way he is. I was waiting for an empowering, cathartic moment that disavowed these views, but it never really comes.

The cast of the show does manage to treat their characters with more nuance than the story does, with helps add some humanity to the proceedings. No one does this better than David Salter in the role of Craig, who brings real heart to the action whenever he is onstage. A lesser actor in the role may also have treated Craig like the joke the other characters, and the script, seems to think he is, but Salter plays Craig with depth, grace and charm, ensuring he can be seen as a person and not just a punchline.

The rest of the core cast are also solid in their characterisation. Andrew Horwood as the late Clarry defines himself well, an especially tricky feat when he has no interactions with anyone else, and James Black as the eldest brother is a breath of fresh air when he arrives in Act 2. Jenny Allan as Betty is also doing some delightful work as the anxious middle child keen to keep the peace, especially in her subtle body language and reactions to the others. Malcolm Walton, as her husband Nick, is responsible for a lot of the more insensitive lines, but he plays it as ignorance not aggression, which saves it from ever sounding too mean-spirited. Some of the acting, particularly in the other, minor roles, tends to become too broad and stagey, as though the characters know they’re in a play exchanging banter. As an ensemble, the cast have a nice, familial chemistry, and it all moves at a fairly good pace, despite nothing really happening. This is a credit to Sue Wylie, whose direction is tight and well executed. Often with comedies like this where you have a lot of people in a space, the blocking can become clunky or messy, and that’s never the case here.

Judging by some of the big laughs heard on opening night, there is an audience for “Well Shut My Mouth.” I am sure it can be argued that it reflects the reality for many Australian families, and will be comforting and recognisable to many. But even if you can look past the aggressively dated social politics, a play should still have something to say, and I am just not sure this one does. It lacks any real dramatic tension, and the attempt at emotional payoff at the end feels unearned. Australian stories deserve to be told on our stages, but I’m not convinced this one is a story at all.