By Nick Pilgrim
Situated in Melbourne’s inner south, Red Stitch / The Actors’ Theatre is known for producing exciting and diverse local and international content.
Thanks to the company’s compact black box space, viewers are treated to an experience never far away from the action. The solid handful of their works I have had the privilege of reviewing to date were both intimate and immersive. These include:
- Desert, 6:29pm (2017);
- Fast Food (2022);
- The Honey Bees (2016);
- Jumpers For Goalposts (2014); and,
- Rules For Living (2017)
A brand-new world premiere developed through the organisation’s INK program, Flake is a three-hander co-written by Dan Lee and Chi Nguyen. Divided into two swift fifty minutes parts separated by a twenty-minute interval, act one introduces us to the characters and their fractious dynamic. Whereas act two details the trio’s shared relationship in searing detail. Deep secrets are uncovered, while several hard truths must be dealt with and accepted.
Very much character-driven, Flake’s main thrust is shared by its two male leads. Bob (played by Robert Menzies) and Murph (Joe Petruzzi) are old mates with a friendship dating back fifty years. Like many long-term bonds, their incessant, overlapping banter fluctuates between the glorious past and a more telling present.
Bob’s constant nitpicking and Murph’s knack for taking the bait, highlight while they appear to be two sides of the one coin, life and distance have tested this relationship to breaking point. Act one made me wonder why they have stayed together for so long, a thought which was made brutally clear by the show’s conclusion.
At times Bob and Murph’s verbal sparring reminded me of Waiting For Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon (by Samuel Beckett), Lenny and George (from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men), George and Martha from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, or Neil Simon’s Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple.
Newcomer, Phoebe Phuoc Nguyen (as Duyen) more than holds her own in the company of Menzies and Petruzzi. Acting as the story’s accidental catalyst, her character shifts from Good Samaritan to a potential romantic conquest for Murph, before a more powerful and significant motive is revealed. Nguyen gives her arc equal doses of fierce courage and vulnerability. This mindset is slammed home in a singular moment where the actor makes us imagine she has killed a rat.
Furthermore, all three actors sink their respective teeth into the co-creator’s strong source material. Together, they make Flake a memorable journey worth taking.
One of the show’s criticisms is that the tale could be set anywhere. I would like to respectfully disagree. Using a rambling sector of Hanoi as its launching point, gives Flake’s characters a disarming sense of isolation very much required within the story’s linear narrative.
This notion is reinforced at key points throughout Flake. The topic of aging and losing one’s independence will strike home for anyone who cares for an elderly parent or has seen the devastation of dementia up close. Several recent pieces which address deteriorating mental health spring to mind including Beautiful Highness, Death Of A Salesman, The Father, Grey Gardens, and A Small Life.
How Flake differs from these examples is that it deflects some of the more sobering aspects of cognitive decline with sharp observational bursts of humour. Breaking that tension allows viewers to connect with the narrative without being worn down by the overhanging subject matter.
Ella Caldwell directs with a deft hand, always keeping the pacing and mood on point. Her ability to let the characters grow and develop between both acts, gives Flake both the levity and gravitas it deserves. Caldwell’s solid work is ably supported by Finn McLeish (Assistant Direction), Yuanlei (Nikki) Zhao (acting as Dialect Coach) and Tom Healey (Dramaturgy). Together, the quartet give Flake the uncertainty setting a show in such a foreign environment (to local audiences) needs for the play to succeed.
Shabby and unkempt, the basement kitchen where most of the action takes place, helps to underline Bob’s peculiar state of mind.
Jacob Battista (Set & Costume Design), Jason Ng Junjie (Lighting Design), Daniel Nixon (Composition/Sound Design), and Khue Nguyen (Set Design Associate/Scenic Painter) combine forces by doing a lot of the heavy lifting required to set the play’s atmosphere and tone.
Even before the actors set foot on stage or speak even one line of dialogue, viewers are provided with certain clues ahead of the writers’ intention and vision. This is especially key for a world premiere, where audiences have few (if any) reference points to access.
In the half dozen plays I have seen them stage, Red Stitch has never disappointed in this regard. Constructed like fabulous advent calendars, it always amazes me how much detail designers can pack into such a small performing footprint.
David Bower (Production Manager), McLeish (Stage Manager), and Finleigh Wadsworth (Assistant Stage Manager) are acutely aware of the limitations working within such a confined space yet rise to the challenge. Flake’s tight narrative is never once disrupted or compromised.
Playing for a strictly limited season until November 5, catch this new and vital work while you can.
Image: Jodie Hutchinson