By Darby Turnbull
It feels like Melbourne Theatre Company and Malthouse are trying on each other’s frocks in an interesting piece of contrast programming. MTC has the incendiary, in ya face (by mainstage standards) Is God is and it’s Malthouse who’s doing the sedate domestic dramedy.
In This is living Ash Flanders returns to his own lived experience in this piece of autofiction that explores the chasm that developed in their relationship when his longtime partner was diagnosed and treated for cancer. He has spoken about how so many pieces of media and writing focus on the illness bringing people together and rising to the occasion and less on the stress, fear and existential dread that can drive lovers apart.
This is living features Hugh and Wil, joined by their three middle aged lady friends on a luxury new years getaway that may very well be Hugh’s last and becomes a battleground for the long festering frustrations that have accompanied Hugh’s illness and also their social circles compromising ambitions, life changes and disappointments.
Alas the two stories rarely successfully merge, Flanders has a real talent for snappy, conversational wit and a lived in bitchiness that can build up over decades of knowing each other but we only get glimmers of the dramatic potential really taking flight. Matilda Woodroofe’s set design and Matthew Lutton’s direction evoke a TV sitcom with the staging suggesting a studio set; mixing realism with obvious backdrops and plywood holding framing the domestic setting.
Marcus Mckenize and Wil King as Hugh and Will both give thoroughly commendable performances featuring raw humanity beneath their often-chafing characters. Flanders’ development of these two characters, heavily filtered through his own relationship, shows so much potential. They’re definitely a recognisable pair and have many toxic elements both individually and together that have been excavated by their crisis. One of the most interesting themes being, what happens when something very real rears its head into the lives of two people who are so aggressively vapid?
Marcus Mckenzie as Hugh is brilliant as the frequently cruel, vain and controlling stylist who plays up his vacuous charisma for his girl group and is passive aggressive and dismissive to his partner in private.
Wil King, who bears a striking resemblance to Flanders in looks and mannerisms; gives a painfully detailed performance of a person deep in carer fatigue and on the verge of a breakdown himself. We’re allowed some insights into his own professional disappointments and transgressions but mostly Will is forced onto the periphery exuding nervous attentiveness and crumbling under his own grief.
I felt more could have been done with the relationship as it moved through the narrative beats; conflict, recriminations, reconciliation, etc but more nuanced insight into the dynamics of their relationship that existed prior to Hugh’s illness and what would actually motivate them to stay together?
Now like Hugh, and Flanders, my idea of an ideal weekend away is with a bunch of fabulous older women and Belinda Mcclory, Michelle Perera and Maria Theodorakis in the same production are enough to send me into paroxysms of diva worship. The three are a knockout in everything they appear in and their exits and line readings frequently drew gasps of delight and applause. They’re indispensable, elevating their somewhat pedestrian stories.
Theodorakis is masterfully deadpan as Jo, the group’s moral rock, an acting professor with boundary issues with her students who don’t respect her personal time. She’s a hardened empath and Theodorakis briefly stops the show with a weary deconstruction of the dramaturgical strengths of a drag performance that showcases both performer and writer at their deadpan best.
Michelle Perera is exceptional at finding unity in Charlene who has many acknowledged contradicting facets to her character that appear in each of her appearances. Her first appearance, she’s been spiked with medical marijuana and is amusingly spacy and given several showcases of brilliant physical comedy. This is contrasted with her uptight maternalism and also desire to return to the liberation of her youth before she settled into marriage and motherhood.
McClory as former pop singer and Tv presenter Alex is in glorious form and looks absolutely fabulous in Woodroofe’s elaborate formal and casual attire (her wiglet could be its own character). McClory balances flamboyance with very grounded survival instincts and genuine love for the people around her beneath her jaded barbs.
Consistently throughout the play we’re treated to some very fun lines, exchanges and physical business but the foundations around them are drawn out and not (to me) developed with richer insights. Like Book Club or 80 for Brady we love seeing venerable mature actresses be fabulous and funny but so much is reliant on their charisma rather than the material. For example, The First Wives Club or Death becomes her both feature screenplays about contentious long-time friendships but the camp exchanges and witty repartee and are as revealing as they are funny. Likewise, Wil and Hugh have a killer exchange during their reconciliation, it’s a great line which I won’t spoil but is slightly undermined by some syrupy dialogue that’s in opposition to Flander’s (in my experience) strength as a writer, and performer; his ability to find poignant truth in a witty barb or scalding observation.
For all my reservations, This is living is a great opportunity to see a relationship dynamic that is seldom explored theatrically from a writer with a hard-earned insight. Marcus Mckenzie’s Hugh doesn’t fall into the ‘saintly terminally ill queer’ trope and is allowed anger, defiance and raw interiority. Likewise, Wil King’s exhausted partner is allowed a few sharp zingers of their own and fallibility in the face of something far bigger than them. Also, three of our finest actresses at the top of their game. I can easily see This is living becoming a staple of community and independent theater. It’s an accessible and frequently enjoyable evening of theatre.
Images: Pia Johnson