By Nick Pilgrim
In the gripping 2010 documentary, A Piece of Work, Joan Rivers exclaimed on her 75th birthday that in a society obsessed with youth, age was the one mountain you couldn’t overcome.
The late comic’s words could not be more sobering or pertinent in the latest outing by Australian playwright, Ron Elisha.
With a prolific career spanning more than four decades and over twenty significant plays to his credit, Elisha has won the Australian Writer’s Guild Award multiple times including their major prize for the piece, Einstein (1981).
Earlier this year I had the good fortune to review Unsolicited Male (for Q44 Theatre) at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran. Never one to shy away from important social issues, Elisha’s cautionary tale deals with office politics and the power imbalance between one employee and her toxic boss head on.
It must be said that the playwright’s whip-smart ability to draw viewers in with slick comedy, builds the foundation for more serious themes to follow. Therefore, I was curious to see how the author would tackle highly personal (yet relatable) topics such as love, loss and aging with Everyman and His Dog.
With a brisk running time of seventy minutes, the show is presented as a gentle monologue. Fronted by the veteran actor, Dennis Coard, Everyman and His Dog quickly evolves into a vast memory piece where viewers become an integral part of the experience.
Never letting up for a second, this face-to-face approach allows us to connect with its rich narrative from the get-go. Other solo pieces similar in structure and momentum I have had the opportunity to critique include:
- A Different Way Home,
- An Evening with Groucho,
- Confessions of a Mormon Boy,
- Dahling – It’s The Jeanne Little Show,
- Every Brilliant Thing,
- The Gospel According to Paul,
- Hold The Pickle,
- Late, Late at Night,
- My Judy Journals,
- Show People, and,
- We’ve Only Just Begun – The Karen Carpenter Story.
Key to their shared success in winning over any intended audience, is a balanced fusion between the performer and writer, direction, creative styling, and pacing. With its strong attention to detail, I am happy to say that Everyman and His Dog exhibits these elements in spades as well.
Elisha’s simple yet brilliant narrative highlights a man in the twilight of his life. Told over one significant day, the story details how life was before and after tragedy struck thirteen years ago.
As portrayed by Coard, John Everyman is unassuming and modest. A retired doctor, he keeps occupied with various chores and errands. When his beloved wife, Sophia, becomes victim to a major stroke, you can see the pain and desperation etched across Coard’s face as he relays the incident and the outcome.
In the yin and yang of many long-term relationships, one partner is often the star while the other holds the spotlight. When that emotional support is no longer available, just the very act of getting up and facing the day becomes a constant struggle.
Recognising his loss, John’s family present him with a pet. Not just any animal. Dog is a failed guide, and a curious choice for a man with a distinct dislike for canines.
Over the course of the show, John covers several childhood incidents which highlight his contempt. These include being attacked by a neighbour’s aggressive boxer or being forced to clean excrement each evening off his father’s work shoes.
However, John’s point of view changes when Dog saves his life. It is this key moment where Elisha’s precise use of wordplay, by communicating Coard’s battle with a kitchen appliance, join forces with the actor as one.
Without giving too much more away, a pivotal decision John makes late in the piece is something many of us will face in one way, shape or form in our lives. Thanks to stellar direction by Denny Lawrence, this powerful moment sneaks up and hold tight.
Streamlined yet expert design by Adrienne Chisholm communicates Everyman’s loss. A prime example being two armchairs placed centre stage and angled towards each other, represent John and his partner. That one is respectfully untouched, reinforces his delicate emotional state.
Supported by Gemma Turvey’s musical composition, her sensitive work splices up the story at key moments by adding another dimension to its great emotive depth.
As Dog, special mention must be made to Zita – The Golden Retriever. With an impressive film and photoshoot resume, this is her first work in a live setting.
The actor, WC Fields is quoted as saying “Never work with children or animals”. Meaning, there were a few dicey moments in the show where she threatened to pull focus. (Fortunately, her trainer was seated by the side of the stage at all times.)
In a way, Zita’s restless behaviour gave the story an unexpected layer of spontaneity. She certainly drew the biggest laugh when the character of John said Dog had failed as a guide dog for being too undisciplined.
A venue new to me, Theatre Works’ Explosives Factory in St Kilda is the right space for this kind of material. That viewers may watch the performance at close range, makes for a highly immersive experience.
Everyman and His Dog is a masterclass in writing, direction and acting. (Knowing that Elisha himself is a general practitioner in real life, adds to the overall realism of this piece.)
At times Coard’s layered performance reminded me of James Stewart (as George Bailey) from the motion picture classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Michael Esper (as Tom Wingfield) from the 2017 West End production of The Glass Menagerie. Working through the seven stages of grief, his nuanced reflection will break your heart.
Playing for a strictly limited season until Saturday October 8, Everyman and His Dog is a journey well worth taking.