Tuesday, 4 August 2015

City - Curtin's Performance Studies & Hayman Theatre Company (4 August 2015)

Curtin University has been enlisting some very interesting talent to work with their students lately to create original pieces of theatre  - Jeffrey Jay Fowler (director - Escape Goat Utopia), Steve McCall (playwright - Teeth 2 Tail) and now director Joe Lui's City, devised by an ensemble including the cast, set designer and stage manager. Lui is a well-known fixture at The Blue Room and certainly brings great craft and skill to this production and there is much to like about the results.

Foremost among these is a wonderful set that is both highly stylised and extremely functional. Presented in stark white with black trim, everything from a laundromat to toilet cubicles to a train and even an adult store is inventively recreated with great economy. Highly regarded for his lighting designs which are on full display here as well, this is a visually arresting show.

The basic premise is that no one is alone (truly) in a big city and there are all kinds of hidden connections that each of us experience in a day. The cleverness of the set design is that it accentuates that thematic premise as we slide from one scenario to another with ease. The acting is good across the board and there is great use of sly humour throughout which made this very entertaining.

However, I wasn't as convinced about the story elements.

We start on a night time train where we witness the adverse reaction of a young businesswoman (Amy Tamati) to two men kissing. Things quickly get out of hand as other passengers are drawn into the altercation. This is all being narrated by the 8 year old "Ant-girl" (Rhiannon Petersen) who is looking for her mummy. Then, in a structure more reminiscent of fractured timeline narrative movies (think Fight Club for example), the action is paused and we go back to the start of the day to see how these people came to be at this place at this time and act the way they are doing.

We are introduced to a married couple (Jarryd Dobson & Daisy Coyle) whose relationship has grown stale as they argue about putting out the bins on that morning's train. There is a charismatic conman cum petty thief (Jeremy Bunny) who tries to sell items he has stolen off others; a young woman (Madeleine Mullins) whose bag he will steal leaving her stranded until her older brother (George Ashforth) arrives. That brother delivers a package (with a healthy Pulp Fiction glow when opened) to an adult store owner (Terence Smith) who is nervous about a first date he has that night with another man. There is a jilted bride still in her wedding dress (Ashleigh Ryan) and, of course, the businesswoman. They then collide in different ways ultimately leading to the events which will occur on that evening's train. All the while Ant-girl floats through proceedings as only an innocent child can whilst imparting philosophical musings on events (as an innocent child generally can't).

The use of the ant colony analogy is far too blatant and overdone and becomes a little grating after a while. The 'child looking for her mummy' device is really only there to allow for an impartial observer. Though in one of the play's more touching moments Ant-girl does have a genuine interaction with the bride who she mistakes for a princess. I say genuine because a lot of the pairings and connections often felt contrived - characters were forced together to serve the theme and plot.

Characterisations therefore felt inconsistent, for example the adult store owner who is grumpy in one scene then unexpectedly compassionate (to the wife in a showpiece scene for Coyle) in another with no real reason for being so. The petty thief also feels like a completely different character in the evening train scene(s) compared to what we have seen earlier. Even within scenes there were beats where it felt like an action change had been called for to alter the dynamic but without necessarily a logical progression to justify that change in action ie be angry now or aggressive. Some of this therefore simply didn't feel organic. That is perhaps as a result of the devising process itself.

Ultimately when we finally revisit the first scene of the play it is replayed verbatim with no additional information added - unlike a movie that uses this structure to then generally add a twist leading into a climax there is nothing new here. Other than Ant-girl's observations which have already been well established. Also, tellingly for me, not all the characters we have seen are even involved in this moment so the prior interconnections have selective intent (most notably between the husband and the thief even though it is an entertaining strand).

Having said that there are some standout performances - Bunny is an interesting mix of charm and insecurity as the thief while Ashforth plays the bloke who has tickets on himself to amusing effect. I liked Petersen's Ant-girl and she is engaging in a tricky role as 8 year old philosopher-narrator.

While I have reservations about the overall story this is entertaining, well acted, beautifully staged and has genuinely funny moments. Directed by Joe Lui and devised by Joe Lui, the cast and some crew, City stars George Ashforth, Jeremy Bunny, Daisy Coyle, Jarryd Dobson, Madeleine Mullins, Rhiannon Petersen, Ashleigh Ryan, Terence Smith and Amy Tamati and is on at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs until 8 August.

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