Reviews, Stage, Theatre

The Beast (Comedy Theatre, Melbourne)

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The following review was first published on Daily Review on August 1 after The Beast’s opening at the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House with the same cast.

In 2013, Eddie Perfect’s debut play The Beast was programmed in the “Zeitgeist” slot at Melbourne Theatre Company. The slot was set aside for a mystery play, to be revealed at some point during the season, allowing the company leeway to bring a fresh piece of writing into the mix. The Beast was announced in May and performed in September.

Perfect’s comedy of (no) manners sees three white, upper-middle class couples retreating to a wine region to reconnect with the land and a more organic way of life. The three men have recently had a terrifying, near-death experience, and although they’ve reverted to their emotionally repressed, WASPish ways, questions about the value of life are not too far away.

The couples decide to stage a magnificent dinner party and purchase a live, ethically-grown calf to be the centrepiece. Unfortunately the butcher doesn’t show up to slaughter the calf, leaving the group of friends with quite a dilemma. I don’t want to reveal exactly what happens next, although it involves a lot of blood.

But just like the title character of this play, what might’ve been fresh and tasty in the moments after slaughter loses some of its balance and flavour with the passing of time.

The play has plenty of flashes of genius, which must’ve been exciting when it was programmed as a fast-turnaround, mid-season entry. Perfect has taken the familiar middle-class dinner party play and injected it with his own brand of poison. Three years down the track, it feels a little undercooked.

It has more “oh my god, you can’t say that” moments than any Australian play in recent memory, and they mostly get across the line — although I’d argue showing able-bodied people being dismissive of people with disability to reveal their own shallowness isn’t particularly necessary.

But Perfect’s subversion of that very familiar form is often very exciting, even in the absurdly violent and bloody act one finale, which holds absolutely nothing back.

The producers have assembled a cast of great comedic actors, but while some — like Christie Whelan Browne and Alison Bell — draw their characters with great care and emotional detail, others are painted in broad brushstrokes.

As well as writing the play, Perfect appears as Baird who, along with his wife Marge (Alison Bell), stands slightly apart from the other two couples. These are the type of people who keep tabs on the latest unspoken trends in salad greens, but Baird struggles to understand where this secret knowledge comes from. Perfect’s warmth as the hapless character offers a way in for most of the audience — he knows how far he’ll fall behind if he fails to keep up with the Joneses.

Director Simon Phillips and his cast have clearly prioritised the comedic above all else, but the upshot of that choice is that the production feels less funny than it should. It starts off with plenty of excellent gags, but when it creeps up to two hours, and most of the characters aren’t grounded in reality, it loses its edge.

Dale Ferguson’s design is fairly simple but evokes a sense of shallow sophistication, while Trent Suidgeest’s lighting and Alan John’s score both seem to wind up these characters for another verbal jousting match in each transition between scenes.

It’s a rare thing for a new Australian play to be given a season by commercial producers, but The Beast connected with audiences immediately in Melbourne and seemed like a no-brainer.

This production mightn’t be a great triumph, but it’s an interesting indication of what commercial producers might be looking for in an Australian play: something that’s generously entertaining and funny. It delivers on that promise, if a little too sporadically.

The Beast is at the Comedy Theatre until September 11. Photo by Ken Nakanishi.

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