By Darby Turnbull
Sex comedies throughout the ages; Shakespeare to Neil Simon, have traditionally relied on miscommunication or straight up deceit in their pursuit of amorous exploits. One genre I’m enjoying emerge in modern writing and production is the ‘consent’ comedy where people outline clearly and conscientiously what they’re thinking and feeling and things go tits up anyway. Dissenters would have you believe that consent takes away the humour or pathos out of narrative, not so, because we’re human and sexual relations are always going to be messy, awkward and straight up surreal and the bed is a fantastic platform for discussions about ethics, power, the world and our place within it. Like Declan Furber Gillick’s Jacky, recently showing at MTC, Telethon Kid by Alistair Baldwin is a sexy, tense and frequently hilarious examination of how the course of general horniness never did run smooth.
Sam (William Rees) has been living with a rare degenerative disease since birth under the care and treatment of ‘Doc’ (Max Brown) who’s on the verge of receiving a prestigious grant that would pioneer treatment. Now an adult Sam is a savvy and insightful operator of the medical system and has monetised it by becoming a queer influencer, disability advocate and subsidizing his medical bills by participating in clinical trials. Meeting his long time doctor at a medical conference the two of them have a drunken tryst which will have reverberations far beyond the two of them.
Brown’s text, at its most invigorating, is a puckish satire of profit driven but big pharmaceutical corporations driven for whom actually helping people in need is an occupational benefit. Using a lifetime of insight Brown’s take down of their faux care slogans and hierarchical hypocrisy is sharp and provides some of the most layered laughs of the night.
William Rees and Max Brown share terrific chemistry and their scenes together are sensual, raw and refreshingly candid in their depiction of lust and the ways we talk ourselves into an intangible quagmire. Both Sam and his doctor are deep solipsists in their own way; Sam loves the attention he receives and is particularly good at curating it on his own terms. Whereas Doc has a saviour complex and is fractiously pious in his insistence on imposing his own perspective on their relationship filtered through medical hierarchy. Sam is clear and insistent that this is what he wants, articulate in his desires whereas Doc can’t get past that he’s known Sam as a child, adolescent and adult under his medical supervision. Both are fiercely articulate in their positions but don’t listen to each other in a meaningful way. Rees is a stupendous presence; sensuous, playful and particularly good at examining Sam’s inner life with wit and bravado. Max Brown gives a much more understated performance as the Adonis like doctor; combining virtuous smugness with genuine moral panic and recrimination. Hannah Fallowfield’s direction adeptly allows the two of them to feed off each others energy and Amy Cater as Intimacy Co-Ordinator has facilitated some erotic and grounded sex scenes that work within the text’s aims beautifully. It’s a dynamic that is infrequently seen on our stages and the vitality of it palpable. What is consent? Medically, sexually, socially and how do they intersect? Clearly the doctor, patient dynamic with its power balances and very particular knowledge of each other is a turn on for the two of them whether they’re willing to admit it or not and realistically why would you choose to pursue a sexual relationship with your patient or doctor when it’s so complicated and ripe for outside influence and opinion but they also share a very specific connection and the sex is clearly good enough for them to want to keep it up. Thankfully Brown keeps romantic love out of the equation and instead makes a case for these two to have a mutually pleasurable fuck fest.
As strong as these parts of the play are, the rest isn’t (from my perspective) not as well integrated from a dramatic perspective. Plot points keep getting added so the strong moments of introspection have less opportunities to land. Ashley Apap plays Evie, a fellow person living with disability who befriends Sam and she herself finds herself in a medically exploitative situation but she’s underdeveloped as a presence. She’s talked about, talked too and in her best moments has a great rapport with Rees where they swap insider bon mots about living with disability and operating within the system, but she remains frustratingly one dimensional and underexplored, a late attempt to give her a voice is undermined by her lack of exploration despite Apap’s valiant characterisation.
The aftermath and consequences of Sam and Doc’s affair is rapid and undercooked and leads to Sam somewhat being underrepresented in what should be his own story. Sam, as written, is so self possessed and confident he has very little dramatic arc, Rees excels at showing the frustration and pain of having his agency and point of view overlooked despite his clear assertions but it’s minimally explored. Ultimately he becomes a source for Max Brown’s Doc’s development, which, after gleefully subverting tropes for much of the play, having it fall into some commonly used ones is frustrating from an audience perspective.
Malthouse marketing and discourse around this show has made much of its exploration and platforming of disabled artists and stories which are historically under and misrepresented. As such it’s an incredible challenge to navigate being one of the few representatives whilst also telling the story that feels most organic as artists. It’s not feasible to be everything in one 90 minute play and nor should they be expected to. Hopefully more varied and diverse stories continue to be platformed that highlight the complexity and multiplicity of living with disability whether it’s about that or not. Telethon Kid for all its strengths does centre a queer, financially secure man without exploring the potential for another perspective within the same play. Some brief lines do identify that Evie is struggling financially and is participating in medical trials to gain access to treatment she wouldn’t otherwise get but it’s underexplored.
Rounding out the quartet is Effie Nkrumah as KT, the PR rep of the pharmaceutical corporation within the world of the play and she absolutely owns the stage in every one of her appearances. She possesses a terrifying, offbeat dynamism (reminiscent of Oliva Colman) which make for some hilarious line readings and physical comedy. But all her choices are rooted in some very savvy characterisation so she’s recognizably human rather than a colourful sketch of a ruthless corporate shark.
Hannah Lowfields’ production pops within the slightly heightened world of the text whilst keeping it grounded in character. Christina Smith’s very clever set incorporates multiple layers of curtains that fluidly allow the action to move between time and location with some gorgeous uses of vivid colours and styles for the characters.
Many thanks to Rachel Edmonds, playwright and disability advocate who joined me for this performance who provided some invaluable insights.
*Sidenote; so many theatres these days are playing incredibly loud, upbeat music pre-show within the space. I understand revving up the audience but it’s a play, not a dance club. Noise sensitive people might want to consider ear plugs
Images: Tamarah Scott