Things I Know To Be True

by | Apr 26, 2024

By Nick Pilgrim

In an interview with the North American podcaster, Ernie Manouse, the stage and television actress, Valerie Harper, summed up the hectic and unpredictable nature of her career with the following thought. “Life is what happens on the way to your plans.” With their current play making its Victorian debut for Theatre Works’ 2024 season, the late star’s observation could not be more pertinent or powerful.

Located in St Kilda, the collective is one of Melbourne’s leading independent live entertainment venues. Since I began writing for Theatre Matters (formally known as Theatre People) over a decade ago, I have reviewed a solid handful of the organisation’s offerings such as:

  • Anti Hamlet(by Mark Wilson),
  • The House of Yes(by Wendy MacLeod), and,
  • The Judas Kiss(by David Hare).

Upon its premiere in Adelaide eight years ago for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Things I Know To Be True by Andrew Bovell immediately cemented its position as an instant classic. Celebrating ordinary people and their everyday lives, it strikes as no surprise how this play resonates with viewers far and wide.

Further stagings of note include the Belvoir Street Theatre (2019) and the New Theatre (2022) in Sydney, as well as international productions in Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. Evident from several secondary schools in attendance on opening night last Tuesday, I believe that Bovell’s play is a prescribed VCE text as well. It should also be noted that his work will soon screen as a six-part television miniseries starring Nicole Kidman.

Family drama is the bread and butter of live theatre. In my experience as a reviewer, some of the more standout local samples which come to mind include:

  • Anna K(by Suzie Miller),
  • The Bleeding Tree(by Angus Cerini),
  • Boy Out Of The Country(by Felix Nobis),
  • Everyman And His Dog(by Ron Elisha)
  • Hearth(by Fleur Murphy),
  • The Honeybees(by Caleb Lewis),
  • Mother & Son(by Geoffrey Atherden), and,
  • Shrine(by Tim Winton).

The list goes on.

Divided into two sixty-minute acts, Things I Know To Be True places primary focus on a blue-collar couple and their four grown children.

Tucked away in the suburbs of Adelaide, Bob and Fran Price are solid as they come.

She is a nurse who works long and exhausting shifts at the local hospital. He is a retired assembly line worker for a car manufacturing plant. Chalk to his cheese, Fran is always worrying or thinking about her kids. Bob, meanwhile, enthusiastically tends to his beloved rose garden.

The pair have put in the hard yards to give Pippa, Mark, Ben and Rosie opportunities and advantages they never had. Though never openly admitting it to themselves or each other, it is soon clear Bob and Fran paid heavily for this sacrifice. In other words, their downfall stems from loving and giving far too much.

Created as a series of extended monologues and interactions, Bovell’s play flies high in its searching and searing dialogue. The author’s writing style is sharp and spare; he also drops golden nuggets of information and oblique clues which foreshadow some of the bigger moments to follow.

What begins innocently enough, unfolds into a gripping journey which will leave audiences glued to their seats. Youngest daughter, Rosie, unexpectedly arrives home early from a gap year backpacking around Europe. Mark has broken up with a long-term girlfriend. Pippa wants to climb the corporate ladder with a job offer in Vancouver. Showing off a new sports car, Ben appears to be the most successful sibling of all.

The play’s fast and overlapping pacing leaves Fran and Bob wanting answers. Very much the family matriarch, the children are highly aware of her ability to tease deep secrets and the truth out of them. Whether they want to relinquish this information, or not.

Sharing an impressive list of stage and screen credits, the cast of six are completely believable as a family in flux. I guarantee their on-stage chemistry will keep viewers invested for the play’s two-hour duration.

Eva Rees (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) as Rosie brings the full bloom of youth to their role. Discussing young love and its inevitable disappointment, Rees sensitively captures the heady highs and lows first romance may encapsulate in devastating detail.

As Pip, Brigid Gallacher (Holding The Man, Secret Bridesmaids Business) is a woman torn between her family and her ambitions. Desperate for her mother’s approval, she is fully aware her impending actions will only be met with scorn and dismissal. Gallacher communicates this quandary with a deep understanding of a woman’s need to find herself inside commitment and chaos.

As Ben, Joss McClelland (The Inheritance) demonstrates the tightly wound and intense physicality his tormented character requires. Backed into a corner by his own doing, one can’t help but feel sympathy for Ben’s selfish choices or flawed reasoning.

Perhaps the most complex of the four siblings, played by Tomáš Kantor (The Inheritance), Mark has the longest and most personal journey to take. Split between their own emotional needs and the wants of his family, Kantor highlights the character’s shy and lonely road from abject depression to being true to themselves.

As Bob, Ben Grant (The Force of Destiny, The Cup), reminded me of the late character actor, Bill Hunter. Carrying himself with quiet strength, Grant showcases a husband’s love and dependability coupled with flashes of rage when his children dismiss or betray him.

In the pivotal role of Fran, Belinda McClory (Blue Heelers, The Matrix) is the core on which Bovell’s work is based. Having seen two previous productions of Things I Know To Be True from the Belvoir Street Theatre and the New Theatre, I was keen to see how McClory would interpret her central character’s dreams and motivations.

Like the proverbial onion, layer by layer Fran is peeled away by her children’s plans. Whether disappointed, enraged, or envious, McClory’s ability to switch emotions on a dime is astounding to watch. Such is the actor’s range, at times I was reminded of Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce, Laurie Metcalf’s brilliant turn in the film, Ladybird and Zoe Caldwell’s electrifying performance as Medea.

Director, Kitan Petkovski understands the significance of Bovell’s text and the author’s ability to shape character development and narrative all in one. Never standing in the play’s way, he keeps proceedings deceptively simple.  Through timed placement and choreographed positioning, Petkovski’s intelligent pacing never once oversteps its mark.

Perhaps the best example of this approach, is where Pip is communicating a letter she has written to her mother on one side of the stage, while Fran is slumped on the opposite side reading it.

Outstanding creative and technical support is vital to the show’s success.

Set and Costume Design by Bethany J Fellows showcases the true-blue Australian spirit in spades. Serving as the story’s heart, her staging consists of a high wooden fence which squares off and frames the space. Clothing choices both inform and identify each character as well, whether it is for the hustle and bustle or everyday life or special occasions. This definition is clear and maintained.

Subtle yet expert Lighting Design by Aron Murray is key to the story’s journey in time, space, and place. Especially when Bovell’s text has overlapping episodes, or in the case of Pip’s and Fran’s abovementioned episode, where two places far across the world from each other need to be simultaneously shown at once.

Composition and Sound Design by Ian Moorhead gives Things I Know To Be True cinematic scope dripping with Baroque flair. Dividing key moments and scenes with his work, adds a masterful touch. His work is supported by Daniel Gigliotti (Sound Operator) and Rachel Stone (Associate Sound Operator).

Fight choreography (by Lyndall Grant) is brought to the fore in the episode involving Ben’s predicament late in Act Two, and the impact his failing moral compass has on Fran and Bob.

The glue keeping these technical components together, Production and Stage Management (Tiah Bullock) is always tight, focused and on track.

Special mention must be given to Bayley Turner (Intimacy and Inclusion Consultant) for their work in helping to shape, form and guide several casting choices. (As detailed in the show’s program notes, the trans community are advised that this production features a non-binary performer in the role of an AMAB binary trans character, and a transgender performer playing a cis character. This casting was done in consultation with community.)

Not since the beloved children’s book, Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner, or the film, Animal Kingdom (written and directed by David Michôd) and their opposing yet eerily similar definitions of family, Things I Know To Be True deserves to be a staple in Australian theatre for generations to come.

Images: Andrew Bott

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