A cry in the dark. A man desperate to die. The gas from the oven is hissing. “I turned my gaze to the ceiling,” Gabriel says. “Jesus … I’d left the skylight open.”
And so he must go on. With more purpose. “There’s a lot to do when you decide to live.”
The lights then spring up on Dead Cat Bounce, the moving new Griffin Theatre Company play by Mary Rachel Brown (The Dapto Chaser). The stark whiteness of designer Genevieve Blanchett’s set, accented by strands of coloured light, is heavenly. Though we’re very much tethered to earth. Gabriel (a ruffled though vaguely distinguished Josh Quong Tart) is on the floor in conversation with his brash half-as-young lover, Matilda (Kate Cheel). She wants to read his new manuscript; he drags his feet.
They’re both unlikeable, at least initially, and the relationship is unbelievable, at least as played out on opening night. The long scene suggests a long night of talky, all-too-familiar relationship drama – the validation-seeking male genius and his avid young muse – that might have some looking for Griffin’s famously steep exits.
But Brown’s play is richer than that. We soon meet Angela, Gabriel’s publisher and ex-lover, who immediately lights up the stage with a tightly wound weariness of Gabriel’s bullshit. It’s a standout performance from Lucia Mastrantone, who within minutes establishes Angela as the most interesting person on the stage.
For while Gabriel is the protagonist, played with steely sadness by Tart, and his trauma-fuelled depression and self-medicating addiction the theme, Brown’s play is really about the women running into and away from the burning wreck. And their fight not to be victims themselves. It is all the better for it.
Matilda must face up to the man she loves never loving her as much as the bottle. She matures before our eyes; Cheel builds backbone in each scene. Angela, now shacked up with the more sensible Tony (well played by Johnny Nasser) and the allergy-inducing cat she took custody of from Gabriel, fights the magnetic pull to save her true love from another downward spiral, only to be torn between two men entirely dependant on her support.
It’s heavy stuff, unflinching in its treatment of mental illness and addiction, but not without wit in Brown’s script. And not without hope either, in spite of the misplaced Chekhov comparisons in the promotional material.
Not every scene works, as staged by star performer but fledgling director Mitchell Butel. But it’s another string to the drama bow of Butel, who directed the terrific Marjorie Prime last year in Sydney and will soon take the reins as artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia. The scenes that do work hit hard emotionally.
Bring on more writing from Brown, more directing from Butel and more Australian work from Lee Lewis’ cosy Griffin playhouse. Especially if it’s as honest and uniquely focused as this.
Dead Cat Bounce plays Griffin Theatre’s SBW Stables Theatre until April 6
Photo of Josh Quong Tart and Kate Cheel by Brett Boardman
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