The Waiting Room review (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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Kylie Trounson’s The Waiting Room is a play about Alan Trounson, the playwright’s father, a pioneering scientist in the development of human IVF; but it’s also at least partly a play about its own creation, about the way plays are written and how history is encountered.

This is not a play that comes at its subject straight. Burrows in, wriggling and writhing like the tail of a spermatozoa. It ducks and weaves, dances and skips, indulging fantasy encounters with Greek gods and ancient alchemists, pausing starry-eyed to wonder at the largeness of universe, and priming us with the basic science of assisted reproductive technology. There’s Kylie herself, today, researching her play, interviewing her dad and her mum, and also those who publically opposed human IVF back in the early years. There’s the story of a couple undergoing treatment before Trounson made his breakthrough. Then there’s the same couple but re-imagined for today, a million babies later, struggling to keep their relationship together. And of course there’s Alan Trounson and his colleague Carl Wood in the laboratory, slaving over test tubes and microscopes.

The Waiting Room is a play which revels in life. And this cures all faults. At one point, Kylie Trounson – the character Kylie Trounson, played by Sophie Ross – explains that you can’t write a play about fertility while you’re pregnant and not talk about your own experiences in the play: about the yearnings, heartbreak, hormones and vaginal excretions. So Kylie chats contentedly about the miracle of life while cosseting her own little baby bump – naturally conceived. And sometimes it feels like this pulls focus from the real story. But perhaps Kylie Trounson knows best. There is something compulsively watchable about The Waiting Room.

Director Naomi Edwards was involved in its initial development back in 2013, and her close familiarity with the text is clear. I saw Edwards direct a very lively production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, Patrick White’s hectic suburban charade, at the VCA in 2012, and this production has the same air of confidence about it. She uses the stage revolve to great effect, very much as if it were a carousel in Kylie’s mind, bringing forth images and ideas as they occur, spontaneously, haphazardly, emerging from behind the golden curtain of fancy.

Sophie Ross as Kylie Trounson has energy and sparkle, capturing the spirit of this adventure in family history. Greg Stone as Alan Trounson is warm and likeable from beginning to end, even as a man who neglects his family for the sake of his research. Stone is also credited in the program as playing the god Eros and Jesus Christ. I remember him as Eros (who wouldn’t recall seeing Greg Stone wearing nothing but a bath towel), but not as Jesus. Perhaps some last minute edits have saved us this visit from the saviour.

As the couple who cannot conceive, Brett Cousins and Belinda McClory show us the emotional cost of IVF, struggling to hold onto their love for one another as the treatments drag on for months without success.

William McInnes is the bits and pieces man of this production. He charms his way through various smaller roles – including a very funny turn as Aristotle. But it’s his performance as Professor Carl Wood as an old man nearing the end of his life, a once brilliant mind gone dark, that really impresses. Kate Atikinson is also good across her five different roles, including Kylie’s chirpy mum.

Kylie Trounson touches only lightly on the many ethical issues engaged by IVF. She certainly doesn’t try to dramatise them. For instance, while interviewing a Catholic bioethicist who was once a vocal opponent of her father’s work, she only asks – with scarcely credible naivety – how anyone could still believe in God. Then the scene abruptly shifts and we’re in a different place and a different time. So much for the issues. The production is already very long at two hours and twenty minutes, plus a twenty minute interval, but perhaps we could have had a bit more depth and a little less of Kylie’s vague musings on space, time and Richard Dawkins.

But still, despite the bright wrappings of metatheatre that mask this remarkable history, past the colourful projections of galaxies that look like cell clusters and cell clusters that look like galaxies, you do still see the importance of what Alan Trounson and Carl Wood achieved, and why it’s worth remembering.

[box]The Waiting Room is at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Melbourne until June 27. Featured image by Jeff Busby[/box]

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