By Nick Pilgrim
In 2022 alone, the #MeToo movement is making a significant mark on the local theatre scene. Coined in 2006, the phrase essentially took flight on social media in 2017 when a surge of high-profile female celebrities lodged sexual harassment and assault complaints against the power producer, Harvey Weinstein.
Stretching far beyond the foothills of Hollywood, several new shows highlight this aberrant behaviour, full-force.
Like two sides of the one coin, earlier this month 9 To 5 opened at the Arts Centre – Melbourne. Based on the 1980 hit film of the same name, the story pits three women against their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, and bigoted boss. Using elaborate musical numbers and snappy punchlines to make its point about the glass ceiling and other corporate roadblocks, this disenfranchised female trio triumph by final curtain.
Where 9 to 5 often painted in cotton candy colours, Unsolicited Male is closer to fifty shades of grey. First presented by Q44 Theatre in 2018, this month their acclaimed production is making a must-see, strictly limited return season.
Located twenty minutes from the CBD, Q44 Theatre is an independent repertory company based in Melbourne
They are known for taking major works staged for Broadway, Off – Broadway, the West End and London’s Fringe, and reconfiguring them to more intimate performances spaces. Thanks to Q44, international (and Australian stories) with more specialised target appeal, are being seen and enjoyed by local audiences.
Previous works that have enjoyed critical success include:
- Savage In Limbo;
- Sex With Strangers, and;
- Shining City.
This revival jam-packs in a great deal of food for corporate thought. Meaning, the ‘He Said / She Said’ gender divide has never felt more important or needed.
Furthermore, Unsolicited Male is the paradigmatic example of a disciplined acting troupe (Kym Valentine, Russell Fletcher, Gabriella Rose-Carter, Anthony Scundi, Will Atkinson and Andy Berry-Brown), laser-focussed direction (by Suzanne Heywood), and a brilliant script (by Ron Elisha), working together as one.
With its swift running time of eighty minutes, the play grabs viewers’ attention from the outset. Never letting go for even a second, the above-mentioned team win viewers over with playful and observational humour. Office politics aside, events, however, quickly take a darker turn.
In terms of locale, structure, timing and characterisation, Unsolicited Male plays to its strengths. The biggest asset, is using everyday people to communicate the story’s power. This situation could happen to anyone. Easy to digest, Elisha’s conversational writing style never feels false or forced. It not only showcases his talent for wordplay, but allows the actors to shine at the same time.
In short, Unsolicited Male is about a boss inviting his secretary out to dinner. Reward, for a long day at work and recognition for a job well done. Nothing harmless in that. Except, when she invites him back to her flat for a night cap, he misinterprets this innocent gesture and takes unfair advantage.
Recently, I saw Hearth (29 Scenes), which uses time shifts to tell its narrative. That snippets of information were communicated and pulled apart for discussion, made the overall journey that much more effective. This technique not only respects viewers’ intelligence, it forces them to pay attention.
Valentine’s Wendy, and Fletcher’s Zeke, aren’t entirely sure of their actions and motives. Their personal doubt allows a pair of confidantes, and sparring partners, Rose-Carter (as older sister, Chelsea) and Scundi (as life coach, Noah), to each play devil’s advocate. Through their influence, at times I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s electrifying character study, Sex, Lies, & Videotape.
Unpacking the dilemma from entirely different perspectives, adds major fuel to the fire. Like wrestling coaches on the sideline, Chelsea and Noah motivate, urge, and inspire between rounds. To no one’s surprise, emotions become raised, and tempers flared. The use of overlapping dialogue, sometimes spoken by several actors at once to communicate an opposing point of view, is an extraordinary touch.
Split second lighting cues and the streamlined multi-purpose set, complete with tiled flooring made to look like a chess board, both add to this strategic gamesmanship. Strong sound design by Joel Armour highlights the story’s cinematic power.
Ultimately, a show like Unsolicited Male rests in the care of its director and cast. Their performances are rich and layered, peeled back like the proverbial onion.
Scundi’s take on a cheesy motivational speaker, is both hilarious and disturbing. In a parallel rom-com universe, Rose-Carter would be the wisecracking sidekick. Given the facts, her initial confusion is ultimately met with unfettered rage. (It should be noted that Atkinson’s snotty waiter, Marshall, added several noted moments of levity where needed. Berry-Brown will play the role later in the run.)
In what is a remarkable departure for both leads, Fletcher turns the tables on his reputation for playing comic fools, and Valentine, the spirited ingenue. Their outstanding work here, raises both questions and answers about the characters, their personal agendas, and hidden motives. Very much a trust exercise, it is thrilling to watch.
At times confronting and shocking (think Jodie Foster’s primal performance in The Accused), yet ultimately rewarding, Unsolicited Male and the swirling world of office politics it inhabits, will wring you dry.
The show plays until Sunday August 7. Don’t miss out.
Images: Jodie Hutchinson