By Andrew Bovell
Directed by Michael Attenborough
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Saturday 6th June 2009
This was slightly disappointing. A new play from an Australian writer, and with two Aussie cast members (one of whom was actually in a cast!); this could have been much more powerful and moving. I’m glad the Almeida is prepared to try something like this from the other side of the world, I’d just prefer that it be of better quality.
The story spans past and future, from 1959 to 2039, and concerns four generations of a family where the fathers keep running out on their sons, although to be fair Gabriel 1 wasn’t planning to kill himself in a car crash shortly after getting his recently acquired girlfriend pregnant. And his dad, Henry, didn’t run off so much as he was told to go by his wife, once she found out about his sexual preference for young boys and with their son being only seven and already featuring in his dad’s hidden photo album.
Said father scarpers off to Australia where a young boy goes missing, with only his shoe being found on the beach. His mother kills herself when his body is found, while his father holds on for a number of years until the dead boy’s sister is old enough to look after herself. She is the recently acquired girlfriend, also called Gabrielle, discovered while Gabriel 1 is searching for some clues to his father’s character and disappearance, and it’s her putting two and two together that causes the fatal crash.
Her son, Gabriel 2, also leaves his wife when his son is little, and in 2039 he gets a call from his son who wants to meet up. This meeting is the final scene of the play, where Gabriel 2 gives his son a collection of items left by his mother about which he knows very little, but which we have seen feature strongly throughout the story.
The play starts with Gabriel 2 standing in the rain with lots of other people rushing past him. Then something drops down from the sky, and the lights go out. When they come back up, Gabriel 2 gives us the story of his son calling him, how he couldn’t talk to him, then had to call him back. He invited his son for lunch then realises he hasn’t got anything to eat, so goes out in the rain and ends up with the fish. Fish have apparently died out by 2039, so it’s more than unusual for one to land at someone’s feet miles from the sea.
Then we see the overlapping generations. Each person arrives in the rain, hangs up their umbrella and coat, goes to look out of the window, heads round the table and off the stage, then comes to the table to take some soup from a large tureen and sit down to eat it. Once everyone is present, they develop a rhythm – synchronised eating – and then they leave so we can see the first scene between Gabriel 1 and his mother.
From here the story is told in different time frames, with the year and place usually being projected onto the screens at the back. There are scenes between a young Elizabeth and her paedophile husband in 1959 and onwards, scenes from 1988 between Gabriel 1 and his mother Elizabeth, now much older and given to drink, scenes between Gabriel 1 and the young Gabrielle, also from 1988, and scenes between Joe and the older Gabrielle from 2013, as well as the start and end scenes from 2039.
This jumping about wasn’t too confusing for either of us (despite comments to that effect overheard by Steve) but it did make it harder to get into the play and to care about the characters. The paedophilia was well signposted, as was the connection between Henry’s disappearance and the murder of the young boy. So there were few surprises and not a lot of insight into the human condition. Nor was there much humour, and when you’re asking an audience to sit for a bum-numbing two hours without an interval, you could at least give us some fun to take our minds off the agony. The set was necessarily sparse although I’m not convinced it had to be so bleak. There was the table, a bench seat and two chairs to the left of the stage, and some hooks lowered down on the right for the coats and umbrellas. A bench also appeared on the right side occasionally but apart from that I don’t remember any furniture. The screens at the back were mainly blank and dark, but they did show time and place information and on Uluru they showed stars and snow.
The main problem for me was the unbelievability of it all. I don’t mind surreal or symbolic touches, but the repetition of the fish motif and one or two other tropes didn’t do anything for me. Perhaps these things mean more in Australian culture. Several characters repeated a long-winded story about cleaning a room from top to bottom, but finding it just as grubby as when they started. What was that about? I have great respect for the hard work the actors put in, and gratitude for Leah Purcell, who played the part of the older Gabrielle with her leg in a cast, but apart from that, why bother? Not the Almeida’s best find by a long way.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me