By Jessica Taurins
Underneath Ms Archer has a number of themes running throughout, from modernity vs. antiquity to social media and its hold on the world. So, it was a bit of a shame to find one of its central story conceits was a bit lost without the relevant historical knowledge.
The show itself has a vast number of high points. Opening on a fearful-yet-vengeful flight attendant and her grapple with an unnamed Passenger 48, Underneath Ms Archer hits hard with its opening monologue as Kelly Archer (Louise Siversen, also a co-writer on the piece) talks through what happened on her flight and we see how she copes with the stress. Kelly is – quite bluntly – supremely unlikeable on the surface, toeing a gentle balance between defending her actions and delighting in the tweets from people on her side.
It isn’t until the surprise appearance of 11th century knight William Marshall (Peter Houghton, co-writer and director) in her mother’s downstairs lounge that Kelly begins to even slightly warm up. Initially, the communication between Kelly and William is by body language and tone alone, as William isn’t speaking modern English, but Siversen and Houghton bounce wonderfully off each other and despite the language barrier, the characters still rapidly grow to understand each other.
Houghton’s physical comedy is an absolute shining light in the show, supporting the performance in its shifts between comedy and drama. He is the very image of a man out of time, both scared and in wonder of a running shower, while immediately taking to a sleeve of Tim Tams and a hot chocolate. There is a kindness and solemnity in William alongside his violent nature, he carries a dagger and screams as he roams the stage, yet he longs for his people back home and knows he must return to his duty even though he fears the outcome. He is a stark contrast to Kelly, a woman who has spent her life refusing to confront any of her problems, even to her own detriment.
The show’s climax, a mutual understanding of the wars they each fight, and the choices they must make, comes perhaps a little too late in the piece for it to have the right effect. That, in conjunction with an underexplained reference to the magna carta (in short, the first document to put into writing the principle that the king and his government were not above the law), unfortunately caused the show to fall a little flat in its final moments. The characters had their growth, certainly, and moments between them were beautiful and hit heartbreakingly close to home, but the second act felt rushed compared to its first.
With a tightening of the script and perhaps a little more time spent drawing out the characters’ conclusions, Underneath Ms Archer could be a spectacular long-running piece across the country and even internationally. The show balances its comedy well with its powerful dramatic moments and is a wonderful experience, complemented well by its special effects. While they are few in the show – which is as grounded by realism as a show about time travel can be – there are some fantastic apparitions supported by lighting (design by Bronwyn Pringle) and sound design (J. David Franzke) that startled and delighted the audience. The set design (Sophie Woodward and Jacob Battista) and costume design (Karine Larché) also help to ground the piece in its time and place, and cleverly brought together the whole piece.
For a first performance, Underneath Ms Archer hits almost all of its marks. Its frank portrayal of modern society is both confronting yet familiar, and there is little difference between the violence of social media witch hunts and the actual witch hunts of William Marshall’s time. Underneath Ms Archer is a wonderful show and, as with all independent theatre, absolutely deserves to run with sold out nights every night.