By Stephen Mitchell
After premiering at La Mama Courthouse in 2018, Just A Boy Standing In Front of A Girl has endured a couple of false starts at fortyfivedownstairs, courtesy of everyone’s favourite pandemic, previewing in 2021 and finally opening in 2023 after what director Beng Oh points out is probably “a record for the longest gap between a preview and an opening night”. That’s a lot of time to keep a show on the cusp. I would be fascinated to have attended that preview and see how much tinkering has been done in the meantime, but I’m guessing it’s a bit. This show is tight. Story, staging, design and performances are all lean and clean, with layers of crisp detail that give its audience much to chew on while they hurtle through a (mostly) breakneck 90 minutes.
Jane Miller’s script takes the ancient Greek myth of Medea and fashions a contemporary narrative of gender inequality, which places the focus on a woman’s lifelong struggle against crushing depersonification within an oblivious patriarchy. If that sounds a little dry or ponderous, it’s not. Miller’s story crackles with humour and acerbic observations, and ultimately delivers a powerful emotional punch. It does opt in a couple of instances for depictions of gender politics around school and family expectations that feel, well…a bit last century. It’s a choice, like much of the play, that is gestural rather than literal but it eschews an opportunity to have a go at untangling what might be more insidious and relevant social dynamics. It’s a small caveat though. Miller drips acid on her main character relentlessly to bring her to an awful, heartbreaking choice that fully immerses us in the complex anguish of (two-and-a-half-thousand year spoiler here) infanticide — not so much Euripides’ vengeance, but a perverse act of maternal love and self-punishment.
This story is, let’s be clear, a binary examination of women and men and Oh makes this explicit with a traverse stage. Not only does this feel utterly in keeping with themes of the play (dividing us in two), it also underpins the show’s ultra-stylised representation. When you are literally looking across at the other half of an audience, it is impossible to forget that you are witnessing performance. Oh leans into this heavily. Characterisations are big, particularly in the first half. Movement is exaggerated. Lighting often follows the actors as they move along the narrow catwalk of a stage. Key moments are regularly accompanied with deftly chosen music or sound effects. A highlight is the use of Whitney Houston (a tragic figure from a tragic marriage, surely no coincidence) which slips from tinny radio to full hi-fidelity and back again in a particularly devastating sequence. Jokes — visual and verbal — come thick and fast. It’s hyperactive but very precise and thoroughly entertaining, with a clear conceptual vision that binds all the elements together. Also, I gotta say, I love a performative set change and there are a couple here that had me oohing with appreciation. Without giving it away, there is a gradual transformation of the set that I realised quite late was a truly satisfying metaphor for the evolution of the central character. Nice.
All of this demands a lot of the cast. The titular Girl (M = Medea) and Boy (J = Jason) are played throughout by Annie Lumsden and Gabriel Partington, but Hudson Emery, Sophie Lampel and Glenn van Oosterom bound on and off stage in a myriad of roles, switching effortlessly between clowning, characters and a kind of chorus, impressing with their range and ability to establish momentary parts in an instant. The experienced Lampel delivers a masterclass in vocal delivery and physicalisation. From cynical teacher to simpering boss’s daughter to a motormouthed old battleaxe, her detail and colour is spot on. Emery’s physical/musical comedy is a highlight and van Oosterom employs beautiful control of nuance across a range of characters, including the slimy, golf-club-wielding boss, a delightful (albeit wordless) henpecked husband Stan, and the heartfully understated nice-guy neighbour Ray. As the gormless, self-obsessed J, Partington hits the stage with intensity and energy. At times, it feels like he’s scaling his performance for the MCG but he tempers it with precision and intelligent choices. J is a jerk but I did have a smidge of sympathy for him — not so much at his eventual comeuppance, but Partington’s conveyance of hapless insecurity.
It is no surprise that the heart (and emotional investment) of the show is in the hands of Lumsden, and she carries it with aplomb, texturing her performance with an array of subtle reactions that offer a silent commentary on every scene. Her brittle attempts to please are often hilarious, such as praising J’s juggling or announcing brightly, “Now you can sing!” Lumsden invests M’s growing frustration and eventual depression and hopelessness with many fine shades of grey, never more than in a scene where she only says ‘no’ over and over — every ‘no’ drawing us through a psychological transformation one painful thought at a time. By the time we get to “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” the tension in her performance is almost unbearable. The dreadful climax is a testament to some terrific writing and Lumsden’s gorgeous and terrifying evocation of motherly love. It’s pretty stunning.
This is a sophisticated production with a lot going on. Shout out to the design team of Emily Collett, John Collopy and Ben Keene. Set, costumes, light and sound are all doing a power of work, adding a lot of subtlety and layers to this impressive piece of theatre.
Image: Darren Gill