By Bess Wohl. Sydney Theatre Company. Director: Jessica Arthur. Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 11 – July 3, 2021.
Reviewed : 11 June, 2021
Winter may be the time to ‘hunker down’ but it’s also the time we need a bit of cheer, and Sydney Theatre Company brings that cheer in this production. Though set in contemporary America, the play has universal appeal, requiring very little modification to change it to an Australian setting. After all, Grand Horizons could be any retirement village in any relatively wealthy first world city – and Nancy and Bill French could be any retired couple. Perhaps.
All seems calm in the French home. Probably too calm, the first scene suggests – and director Jessica Arthur’s cunning blocking of that first scene is one of the things I shan’t give away. That there is more than one surprise is indicative of playwright Bess Wohl’s distinctive ability to twist her plot and manipulate her characters, and Arthur’s distinctive ability to manage the comedy – and the underlying angst – that results from those twists and manipulations. This production has laugh-out-loud moments, in some of which the cast, very professionally, wait out the laughter. In one of those moments the laughter could ruin the punch line of a very suggestive joke … if the joke were not being told by such an accomplished actor.
In fact, two accomplished actors lead the cast in this very tight, pace and pause dependent production. Linda Cropper and John Bell play the ‘oldies’ of the French family. Both Nancy and Bill appear to be happy, quiet, competent, restrained, until Nancy announces that she wants a divorce. And despite belittling her determination, Bill doesn’t argue against the idea.
The effect on their two sons, however, is very different.
Suddenly their down-sized Grand Horizons apartment is inundated by Ben (Johnny Nasser), and his younger brother Bryan (Guy Simon). The idea of a divorce, in their loudly voiced opinions, is ridiculous, unthinkable. Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess (Zindzi Okenyo), is a little more open-minded, but her attempts to use her counselling skills do little to diffuse the tumult.
Nancy stays quietly determined and Bill starts to pack.
Their sons become more louder, more insistent – and as they rant at their parents much more of each character is revealed. Ben, a lawyer has a tricky court case. Brian, a drama teacher, explains in explicitly paused detail how he intends to involve two hundred students in a production of The Crucible.
Bill is doing a course on stand-up comedy and has become over friendly with a fellow student called Carla (Vanessa Downing). Nancy, though slightly bewildered by the acrimony that has resulted from her decision, goes off collecting clothes for charity. Jess tells Ben she is sick of him calling her ‘Babe’. Brian brings home someone he has picked up at a local bar. It’s not every family – but it could be many.
This is all revealed in skilfully written dialogue that gives Arthur and her cast wonderful opportunities for comic timing – and extended pauses. Cropper and Bell use both masterfully, creating some very funny moments, as well as some that are a little more touching. They find the gentle pathos and fear of the future that Wohl has incorporated into the characters, as well as the comedy.
Nasser, Okenyo and Simon find similar comic moments as their characters break the seeming ‘peace’ of retirement that Nancy is determined to escape. They sustain the pace of their first scene, and pepper it with the malice of old resentments.
Vanessa Downing as Bill’s friend Carla is a little silly, a little vague, and totally loveable. Wohl allows her such a short time on the stage, but Downing uses every moment effectively. As does, James Majoos in another short but memorable scene that Majoos handles with instinctive timing and beguiling cheekiness.
There is much fun on the surface of this production – but Arthur has ensured that Wohl’s underlying messages about age and marriage and family pressures tinge the laughter with a touch of melancholy.