For the last 30 years Australian television has been reminding its audience neighbours should be there for one another. That’s when neighbours become good friends. Neighbours’ recognisable theme song and its friendly “over the fence” message portrays the archetypal suburban neighbourhood. However, in real life fences can divide neighbours, rather than connect them.
In Dream Home, playwright Emilie Collyer’s picture of suburbia sees those days of organising a street cricket match as a distant memory. Now, when leaving the house partners have to be reminded to smile at the people walking their dogs. And when you loan a neighbour a ladder, and they don’t return it, you feel too awkward to ask for it back. And when it is returned, it’s broken.
The couple at the centre of this setting Brian (Christopher Brown) and Wendy (Emily Tomlins) ooze anxiety when it comes to connecting with the people — strangers– who live next door. This is no Ramsey Street. This couple has built walls around themselves. These real and imaginary walls inhibit their ability to communicate with others honestly and openly. Equally, the strategies they apply to keep it together, including coordinated schedules and breathing exercises, are increasing their desire to feel something real.
The couple had started building a real wall as part of a tree house inspired renovation to their home, intended to give them a view of the whole city. But they stopped construction when they noticed a light illuminating through a growing crack in the wall, an infestation of insects, and a foul smell.
The set in Dream Home is the wooden framework of their unfinished renovation, with plastic sheets for walls. Worrying what their neighbours think about their aspirations of “going up” plays on Brian and Wendy’s minds. Their response is to invite the neighbours around for a BBQ. Not that they want to become good friends with them. Wendy admits she doesn’t care if they hate her. She just wants them to get to know her before they hate her.
But the audience does not see or meet any of the neighbours. Instead, an unlikely pool of uninvited guests who do not live in the neighbourhood — our first clues — seems to appear from the shadows.
This party mix includes Elise (Olivia Monticciolo), a budding stand-up comic who is door knocking to raise funds for her future career. She believes the secret to her success is making fun of other people, and their tragedies. Brian’s old flame Irina (Natasha Herbert), a famous celebrity actress arrives at the doorstep as if she’s just stepped off a private jet. There’s the architect (Ben Pfeiffer), who suffers from OCD. And Dean (Jackson Trickett), a young guy in a tank top and ripped jeans who gets off on both pleasure and pain. Unlike the hosts, Dean has no walls around him, which unsurprisingly, Wendy finds hard to resist.
The play is driven less by action and more by brilliantly awkward conversations, and the superb cast capture the humour in the script. Collyer’s witty and layered script highlights an invisible wall, which blocks these conversations from getting too personal, or real, thereby blocking genuine and heartfelt connections between the characters. If any attempt is made to penetrate or break down the wall, subjects are quickly changed, questions deflected, and punch lines are lost — “I didn’t know I was supposed to laugh,” Wendy says at the end of Elise’s stand up routine.
As the BBQ goes on, the crack in Wendy and Brian’s wall grows, and the light penetrates even brighter and Dream Home‘s characters who respond by either embracing the new found honesty or frothing at the mouth and running.
Collyer lulls us with her David Williamson-esque cues for suburban life, backyards and BBQs, but then she breaks out into something more surreal which tests our sense of familiar relationships.
In an early scene Brian’s friend asks him why Wendy is worrying about the BBQ. “Stuff takes care of itself,” the friend says. People like Wendy who exert so much energy trying to resist change and intimacy need to be reminded of that. Maybe if the crack in the wall opens even wider, neighbours may just become good friends.