By Darby Turnbull
This is the third two hander relationship drama I’ve seen over the Fringe Festival and for one that makes aims towards explorations of mortality, grief, guilt and finding some momentum in life after profound loss it feels the emptiest.
Liam Borrett’s slight one act play, it runs 50 minutes (but feels longer) opens with young parents, Michael and Alice, stuck in some sort of purgatory. She’s deceased, the victim of a drowning that almost claimed their surviving infant daughter and he is reeling from her death and his future as a single father.
Borrett’s text flits in and out between postmortem recriminations between the couple with key moments from their relationship; meet cute on a bus, profound first date, pregnancy, a miscarriage, the aftermath and finally Alice’s announcement that she’s pregnant again.
Like Constellations a few days prior I spent much of the running time searching for the hook that would draw me to these characters and their story besides their tragedies and despite two very able performers it eluded me. Borrett’s writing feels like he’s grasping for maximum profundity but the characters are so thinly written, like they’ve been crafted to short circuit an emotional reaction rather than organically emerge from how they’re crafted as individuals. There are moments of interest; Michael has a longstanding relationship with death given both his parents have died and now his partner has died and Alice has a somewhat consistent earthy wit, but neither are fully explored for satiable impact. The existential crisis of an individual who has one foot in the underworld because of his own continuous profound experiences with grief and loss is so ripe and someone with access to a quick rejoinder even in moments of deepest pain can at least provide some morbid levity that allows some scope to actually sit with what this means for the individuals in ways that aren’t merely didactic.
Instead, what we have is a soft, sad boi and his manic pixie dead wife. A man who literally says his aim in life is to be a dad, gets his heart’s desire but his partner dies and a woman whose sole role post death is to assist in his grieving process. Without anything else to grasp onto it leaves us with some quite noxious clichés, Alice is so thinly written that her ability to procreate becomes one of her sole character traits. Michael is written like a writer’s idea of the ‘perfect man’, someone so endlessly supportive, sensitive and noble that he may as well be playing the prequel version of Tom Hanks’ character in Sleepless in Seattle.
Gavin Roach’s production, alas, doesn’t do much to accommodate more depth to the text. For one, this is a very British text in its rhythms and references, but it’s played in broad Australian accents and it becomes more disconnecting as the play wears on. Sam Porter has designed an ethereal soundscape that plays continuously under the entire performance which far from providing insight or pathos has a more soporific effect.
The production plays at such a monotonous pace that it doesn’t give the performances or themes room to breathe.
Damien Okulic as Michael is able to show sincere, deep wells of feeling and he masterfully inhabits the pain, rage and hopelessness of his character and it makes for a powerful opening, but it gives his character very little room to grow. If the play is meant to convey that he’s reliving key moments of his relationship whilst still at his lowest it doesn’t come across. More could have been done to explore the contrast between the present and past in terms of their personalities and affectations. Okulic does show warmth and sensitivity and has a lovely chemistry with Rebekah Carton as Alice but they’re both somewhat limited by the text and production.
Rebekah Carton plays Alice with a maturity that somewhat belies her age (she’s twenty when the pair meet) and personality. Borrett’s text shows more of a sketch of Alice rather than a full, tangible personality and Carton does her best to fill in the gaps. She’s winsome and endearing and has a wonderfully fluid sense of physicality that embraces her characters affinity for dance and does wonders embodying a pregnancy without the aid of costume or padding. Every emotion the text asks of her she conveys with open hearted empathy, but I didn’t get the sense that the text understood those emotions and what they meant to Alice, rather she was showing them because that was what was needed to get from emotional point A to B. As such Carton and Okulic’s skills as performers are somewhat adrift.
There are strong moments, both actors aptly create a tangible world on a mostly bare stage and Iz Zetti’s lighting design contains some lovely compositions that complement the actors and the white costumes.
This is Living plays as part of a trilogy of two handers at Meatmarket