Bite Me theatre review (ATYP, Sydney)

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The annual wordfest that underpins Australian Theatre for Young People’s (ATYP) latest production, Bite Me, its first for 2014, is laudable. Each year, the company gathers 20 up and coming writers at the so-called National Studio on NSW’s south coast at Riversdale. These top 20 work on a seven-minute monologue around a dedicated theme – this year  ‘food’ -under the mentorship of experienced playwrights and dramaturges. The monologues, specifically written for 17 year-old actors are called The Voices Project which sounds like an FBI or ASIO operation, but the outcomes are better.
Twelve from the 20 are published by the Currency Press and 10 are presented at ATYP under the title Bite Me. Here are flashes of brilliance; or something approximating it. And tedious, rambling, undisciplined, self-indulgent streams of consciousness; or something approximating it. I could do without the latter.
Even with the good stuff, most of the metaphors are pretty heavy-handed and long bows are quite often drawn. Apropos of nothing, Gez Xavier Mansfield has given us an abstract (nondescript, really) set: a raised platform for a stage, to the back and side of which performers linger and, on the platform, a largish wooden table, from which actors vault and on which they slide about.
Jed Silver’s sound design results, at one juncture, especially, in drowning out much of the monologue: not a good ‘look’, much as I liked the dirty, big, fat, Neil Youngesque guitar chords. If the near-acrobatic skills of at least some are a guide, movement coach Adele Jeffreys has made an extraordinary contribution; though it’s the finer physical expressions I found more meaning. Voice coach, Kate Williams, too, seems to have brought out the very best, with but one or two possible exceptions. Director Anthony Skuse has done a first-rate job of directing a truly prodigious cast.
Eating Sunshine by Emily Sheehan is poetic in concept and accessible in its vernacular. Actor Darcie Irwin-Simpson, with a little bit of help from Kate Williams and Joel Jackson, relates a tale of a Ukrainian man whose only sustenance is sunshine. She does this in such a natural way as to have you almost convinced of the possibility.
It’s an engaging idea and script, with the sunshine concealing a dark, controversial secret: the teenaged character speaking is confessing her affair with a much older, married man. What makes it refreshing is it’s not a story of exploitation, but of catharsis and maturation. Like many of the other monologues it waxes and wanes but is a truly delicious tale.
Across the board and with but one or two exceptions, performances are outstandingly strong: if this is typical of the current, or next, generation of Australian actors, I look forward to many enthralling nights in dark places and spaces.
The writing isn’t as even in quality. Julian Larnach’s Something I Prepared Earlier is a free-wheeling meditation on the meaning of food, featuring Paul Musumeci but it doesn’t provide any particularly acute insights observations.
Tasnim Hossain’s Sweet in the Savoury, performed by the too quietly spoken Angelica Madani, seems anxious to subvert expectations and stereotypes pertaining to young Muslim women. The husky-voiced Julia Rorke stars in Kyle Walmsley’s Food Baby, in which she harangues her long-suffering, albeit newish boyfriend, Stephen (played silently by Joel Jackson). It squanders time on silliness, but is saved by Rorke’s gifted accentuation of the humour that’s there.
Felicity Pickering’s Facon is an exceptionally mature, well-constructed piece of writing, cleverly rhymed, which lures us in with the smoky ubiquitousness of the barbie; that central fixture of Australian culture, around which so many inane interpersonal exchanges pivot. As in Hossain’s script, food is used to discuss the gulfs between people and the shores upon which they can and do meet. In this case, the meeting is between ravenously meat-eating Tia and her new, vegan beau. Kate Williams ensures this seven-minute steak is properly seared, with a performance that puts the pathos to the comic disguise of a young, confirmed carnivore, born and braised.
George is by Keir Wilkins and features Musumeci. It’s a sort of post-apocalyptic musing on a food-scarce outback, where men are men and dogs, even best friend, George, are no longer safe from hungry eyes. It’s a way to give meat meaning that almost works but, again, lacks a little seasoning.
Jory Anast wrote Pip Nat Georgie, which, thanks in very large measure to Airlie Dodds’ intensity, vividly depicts the blurry line between friendship and attraction; the coming-of-age agony of sexual and moral ambivalence, in which the head knows the friendship isn’t worth risking, while hormones insist lust must be indulged.
Sophie Hardcastle’s Sweet Sour is a poetic and tragical depiction of family life with a psychotic mother. Sam Marques almost induces a tear, thanks to Hardcastle’s sensitive hand, which finds light in even the darkest corners, proving lemons are, indeed, sweeter than strawberries.
Joel Jackson features in Jake Brain’s Tell Me, which barely lights on food; rather, it mourns for a lost brother, through the eyes and grieving heart of the surviving one.
Dig In, Dean, by Zac Linford is the finale, in which Tess feasts on a lamb roast, while enjoying the main course, her new boyfriend, in her mind. In that idyllic place, they even finish together.
Bite Me brings quite a lot to the table.
[box]Bite Me is at ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf until 22 February. Tickets are available at[/box]

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