Saturday, 12 September 2015

Shadows on the Stage: Like father like son

The Sum of Us
scr David Stevens • dir Gene David Kirk
Above the Stag Theatre, Vauxhall • 9.Sep-4.Oct.15

The plucky Above the Stag Theatre deploys its now-expected professionalism in this revival of David Stevens' award-winning 1990 play, which was adapted into the 1994 film starring the great Jack Thompson and a young Russell Crowe. Not only are all four of the cast members well up to the challenge, but the set designers have outdone themselves to create a detailed Melbourne home in a very tiny space, plus a terrific last-act transformation.

Set in the late 1980s, the story centres on Harry (Stephen Connery-Brown, above left), a widower who lives with his 24-year-old rugby player son Jeff (Tim McFarland, right), more like odd-couple flatmates than father and son. Harry is slightly too supportive of Jeff's gay sexuality, encouraging him to get out there and find a man to love. When Jeff brings home the shy nice guy Greg (Rory Hawkins), Harry's enthusiastic acceptance is a bit much at a time when Greg is unable to even mention sexuality to his own parents. Meanwhile, Harry has registered with a dating service, through which he meets Joyce (Annabel Pemberton), the first woman he has gone out with since his wife died a decade earlier.

The play features continual to-audience monologs that reveal the complexity of Harry's and Jeff's inner thoughts. It's a mannered device that slightly diminishes the strong camaraderie between the characters, but it continually offers pungent insight between the lines. Connery-Brown is particularly strong as Harry, a cheerful guy who just wants his son to feel free to be himself inside his own home. And while Hawkins sometimes over-eggs Jeff's cheeky attitude, he's a likeably complex young man who realistically feels just as trapped by his father's encouragement as Greg does by his father's cruel bigotry. Both Hawkins and Pemberton bring all kinds of edges to their smaller roles.

Most significant is how the play uses honest interaction mixed with internal soul-searching to explore the impact we have on each other, generation to generation, as we search for our own happiness. No one wants to go through life alone, but perhaps it's even more difficult to watch someone we love fail at romance. Where this story goes is darkly surprising, both intensely moving and properly hopeful. And this astute production brings out the script's emotional kick in a way that feels organic and effortless.

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