Both Sides Now is a fledgling company that seeks to bridge the divide between Australian and New Zealand theatre. If that is their mandate (and admittedly this information is second-hand as there were no programmes on the night) then they should certainly be commended. Any initiative that supports a greater exchange of theatrical works across the ditch should be applauded – especially one that could potentially lead to a more robust and richer conversation about our changing narratives.
But why Sweet Phoebe? Michael Gow’s play certainly won the Premier’s award (NSW) in 1995 and Cate Blanchett gave it a sprinkling of stardust but twenty years on the power and the poignancy of Gow’s words simply do not stand up to its current equivalents.
The material is banal and can probably be summarized in two sequential hashtags: #relationshipincrisis #firstworldproblem. Gow’s Helen and Fraser are the epitome of the yuppie couple. He’s managing a senior account, she’s an interior designer, no kids, double income (DINKS don’t you know?) and both are bursting with closet insecurities, compulsions and needs. Of course, the perfect balm for a metastasizing cancer is to massage it with cheap moisturizer from the supermarket so it’s perfect that their friend’s dog (Phoebe) needs a home while her owners go for couple rehab.
Within days Helen and Fraser fall in love with the adopted canine and as a result are spending more time together. Everything seems hunky-dory and then of course, things fall apart. No, not in a Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart epic drama but a lot of wind, an open door and the dog is gone. The journey to recovering Phoebe and their former selves (whatever that might be) now begins.
Gow’s script is a product of its time. Shimmering with Pinter-esque layers and written in rapid-fire dialogue with a few navel-gazing monologues, this is a play that is quite evocative on the page. However, when taking that story to the stage, production company Both Sides Now runs into more than a few issues.
For starters the relationship between Amy Usherwood’s Helen and Nick Simpson-Deeks’ Fraser is already spiralling downward when we first meet them. The chemistry seems forced. Usherwood’s Helen is extraordinarily frigid and seems to have watched too much Downtown Abbey (except of course it wasn’t even around back in the 90s). She warms up when Phoebe enters their lives (the dog is always just out of audience sight) but even after the animal’s disappearance her character continues to remain almost always one-note.
There is never much feeling or warmth to encourage empathy with this character, even as she recites the encounters with strangers who may have her dog, and sings in a Vietnamese restaurant. There simply isn’t much room for her to stretch. This is a direction that seems consistent throughout the play and continually retracts the opportunity to engage with the multi-faceted female character that Gow originally wrote.
Deeks, on the other hand, does offer a few more layers as the slightly frustrated account manager who feels forced to compromise in accordance with his boss’s preferences. He manages to capture Fraser’s slow internal combustion, leading to one of the most effective climaxes in the play. Unfortunately, much else from that point on is rendered rather dull.
The random sex he has with a stranger is hardly shocking and staged in such a predictable way it adds little value to the narrative. The consequences of that are felt even less and the plays closes in upon itself to strange time-shifts that blur any sense of the linearity that had been established at the beginning.
The set is sparse with four faux leather footstools in the centre. The actors do well inside the black box but the lighting is jarring and out of sync with the nuanced emotional shifts that the characters experience. The music – soft electronic ’90s – is included for ambience and to help with supporting the passage of time but does little to add to the narrative or support a sculpted soundscape. Gow’s original script of two career-driven adults who venture across the suburbs of Sydney in search of their dog simply isn’t captured because the stakes are never raised high enough in this production.
There is little to resonate with in the opening scenes because we never see our characters in their ideal world, perfectly manicured and organized, before it disintegrates. Instead we arrive when the walls are already coming down and even a picture can’t hide the glaring cracks.
Director Marcel Dorney comes to this production after having received fabulous reviews at the Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest NEON festival and yet his swift, perfectly balanced ability to curate this world falls abysmally short of his previous success.
It is also frustrating because Gow is a good writer and Sweet Phoebe can, when done well, offer some quintessential glimpses into the tensions of coupledom, despite its structural flaws. But in this production the wit, charm and humour are utterly lacking.
And so the question remains: why? What does this story offer an audience in 2015 that we have not already experienced through a variety of other talented playwrights and far more enduring narratives? Challenging new works can hold up the mirror to our society, enduring ones can effectively shatter that mirror – this version of Sweet Phoebe sadly does neither.
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