I hated this play. Watching its premiere at the State Theatre Company in Adelaide a couple of years back, Andrew Bovell’s overripe melodrama had a pungent smell of the worst type of contemporary middle-class storytelling
It presented as theatre by committee — which it is; a rehearsal room collaboration between writer, directors and the original cast. No idea went to waste. No emotion was too large. No performance too broad.
Characters were less flesh and blood and more ciphers for societal ills, like a program of A Current Affair stories. The overworked nurse and put-upon matriarch. The retrenched car factory worker and redundant dad. The finance high-flyer who pushes the boundaries. The young mum who prioritises an affair over her kids. The woman trapped in a man’s body.
The Price family of Hallett Cove (south of Adelaide) veer from one dramatic sibling confession to the next, with mum and dad interchanging as good and bad cop while trying to keep their own marriage together. It’s a coming-of-age tale (times four) and a now-what boomer lament (times two) all in one over-wrought package. A suffocatingly small world with outsized emotions. Loud. Long. Manipulative yet ultimately impotent.
At least it was in that Adelaide production, where the staging (including a choreographed physicality by British troupe Frantic Assembly) and mostly insipid performances did nothing to make a case for this play to stand alongside Bovell’s beloved collection of work (Speaking In Tongues/Lantana, When The Rain Stops Falling, The Secret River).
And now? Well, gone is the director and cast. Gone is the physical theatre. And in comes a director and new performers that do more with the material than I ever thought possible.
I hate this play a whole lot less.
In a work about returning to the old backyard (a cracked green carpet with season-reactive rose bushes by set designer Stephen Curtis), former Belvoir St boss Neil Armfield returns to his to wrestle with Bovell’s words. It’s a better fit for the material and he does an admirable job at fusing narrative threads and calibrating the histrionics. Alan John’s compositions sensitively tug at heartstrings.
The play works better, too, in no small part due to the central casting of mum Fran. There’s cruelty to the character, a malicious streak beyond motherly protection, that in the original production was hard to watch. Enter Helen Thomson, a darling of Sydney stages, who doesn’t so much sand down the role but transfuses it with a more coherent humanity. Suddenly she seems warm and wise, wary but wonderfully real.
Few could pull it off. And I’d pay more to watch Thomson do her thing. Even in a flawed play. Tony Martin is a nice presence, too, as dad Bob, befuddled but bursting for his family. Of the kids, each gets their issue but little specificity to go with it.
Miranda Daughtry is the anchor as Rosie, returning home from an aborted gap holiday more lost than when she started, making lists of what still feels true as her familial world spins wildly off its axis. Daughtry is a strong narrator. Her monologue to open the show, on loneliness and first love and learning the world doesn’t work like you expected, is poignant and draws us in.
But the show quickly moves on. Tom Hobbs’ journey to transsexualism as Mark feels pressed and dishonest, but his performance is sensitive enough. Anna Lise Phillips (Pip, the restless mum) and Matt Levett (Ben, the embezzling banker) more believably break down.
For two and a half hours the Price family make each other miserable. With a gut-punch ending that doesn’t feel earned.
I didn’t hate it. It will please many a crowd. But even in this much-improved production, it’s not nearly as clear-eyed and penetrating as Bovell clearly hoped it to be.
Things I Know To Be True plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until July 21
Image by Heidrun Lohr of Helen Thomson and Tony Martin in Things I Know To Be True