Life wasn’t meant to be easy, especially for insurance assessors. And quite right, too, we might say, when we hear of them denying compensation to flood victims and automatically assuming that all claimants are liars. But you have to feel a bit sorry for Jole Pinkerton (Hugh Parker) who, when we first meet him, is dealing with a claimant whose brand-new Merc for which he strangely has lost the receipt, and which he left unlocked with the key in the ignition in a shopping centre car park, has been stolen. His next job is to interview a German hausfrau (Caroline Kennison) whose husband was abducted by aliens many years ago, and who fears the same fate for her teenage daughter Storm (Ashlee Lollback), who went missing for 24 hours and was found in a field 200km away. Add to this his wife Holly (Lucy Goleby) who is suffering post-natal hysteria, with a new baby who won’t settle and who has distinctly non-human facial characteristics.
From this glorious mess comes a glorious new play by long-term Brisbane actor and playwright Kathryn Marquet, the result of a playwright-in-residence program at La Boite Theatre last year. The basic question behind the high jinks is a genuine and universal one, of whether we are alone in the universe, which has been the subject of much scientific analysis as well as goofy conspiracy theories ever since the first UFO was, allegedly, spotted by Winston Churchill early last century. Jole doesn’t believe in aliens or UFOs, but how can he come to terms with the facts about Storm and her abduction, and also the strange things that are happening with his new baby, who at one stage was found out of her cot and on the floor?
This play could so easily have become a mess or a farce, but Marquet’s acting experience has allowed her to understand what would work and what wouldn’t. And under Michael Futcher’s firm and accomplished direction, this play of many parts and many moods, while toying with all our expectations and cynicism, makes a coherent and ultimately satisfying whole. The mystique is achieved with Jason Glenwright’s lighting design, using elements already well known to us through all those sci-fi films and television programs with their intergalactic possibilities, and impressive projection techniques by Craig Wilkinson and Stephen Brodie’s video design. Josh McIntosh has cleverly adapted the Roundhouse space so that it now combines the theatre-in-the-round concept with a thrust stage, which creates the illusion of other worlds as well as the here-and-now.
But, as always, the final result depends on the cast, and this foursome have their roles well in hand. Brisbane’s darling, Caroline Kennison, has two roles, both of which she makes her own: first as the German immigrant mother Greta, who firmly believes her husband was taken by aliens, and proclaims this with the best mitteleuropa accent I’ve heard since I lived in Germany; and then as the loopy leader of a UFO-sighters group, with a lack of finesse that places her up there with Marjorie Dawes, the Fatfighters leader in Little Britain.
The character of bemused insurance assessor Jole could easily have been just as a fall guy, but Hugh Parker brings a subtle range of emotions to this comically-troubled man. At times he is simply a tired, sexually frustrated husband; at others a bemused spectator out of his depth; and sometimes a man who is being forced to confront something he has never believed in. This is a finely judged performance, and while the role of Storm, the abductee, is more straightforward, that doesn’t detract from the performance of Ashlee Lollback, who got all the attributes of a girl with a single mother, while coping with her own disturbed sexual development down pat. I thought at first that Lucy Goleby as the hysterical wife Holly was going to be one-dimensional, but she too eventually brought light and shade into her performance as she tried to come to terms with the fact that perhaps her baby was half-alien.
So where does this all leave us? Is this just a send-up of the possibility of other life forms in the universe, or are we invited to take the concept seriously? That is perhaps the triumph of this very clever comedy, that it leaves even the most cynical among us wondering just a little, and a little unsure of what we have always taken as certainties. Anything imaginable is possible, they say, and the play rests on the suggestion of Arthur C. Clarke, that “two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”