"This may very well be the birth of a future Australian classic."
Playwright Katy Warner must surely be one of the most exciting discoveries in Australian theatre to have emerged in recent memory. Flying largely under the radar of the nation's larger presenters (so far, at least), her breathtakingly assured one-man text, A Prudent Man, which explored the collision between political spin and hidden emotional truth, earned a slew of rave reviews, including five-stars from The Music, when it premiered last year. With such incandescent praise comes a great weight of expectation, but this has been met - and then some - with Warner's superbly observed and unexpectedly moving new play, Spencer.
In a humble suburban house, we meet a family as generic and familiar as any in Australia. Ben (Lyall Brooks), the eldest son - a fully-grown man still living at home - is a washed-up pro-footy hopeful, still clinging to the memory of his somewhat mediocre heyday, while living vicariously through the under-tens he now coaches at the local Auskick team. He can at least feel closer to his tattered dreams via the career of his younger brother, Scott (Jamieson Caldwell). Tipped for greatness in the big leagues of the AFL, Scott has spent much of his life, from adolescence now into adulthood, focused on reaching the highest levels of the game.
His brother isn't the only one riding Scott's coattails. The formidable matriarch of the family, brash, ball-busting single mother Marilyn (Jane Clifton), is a parent of the 'do as I say, not as I do' variety, berating her sons for bad language while simultaneously turning the air blue with her own stream of expletives. She has been the driving force behind her son's sporting ascendancy - a fact she isn't coy about reminding him of.
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Today, however, there's an even more important goal in her sights. Scott has unwittingly become a father, the consequence of the kind of booze-addled womanising rife in his sporting profession. Today, the family will meet this child — Spencer — for the first time. Today, a young life will be surrounded by the ambitions and expectations of a group of strangers. Add to this the arrival of the family's middle child, Jules (Fiona Harris), unexpectedly moving home after the end of a toxic relationship, and the unwelcome intrusion of long-absent father, Ian (Roger Oakley), who attempts to pick up his parenting (with thinly veiled ulterior motives) after an eighteen-year hiatus, and there's a perfect storm of high-running emotions, unspoken anxieties and volatile resentments.
This is a collection of larger than life characters, and they deliver some big, goofy laughs at points, including one punchline that'll leave you reaching for the hanky — although not in the way you're probably thinking. The brilliance of this script, however, is not in its excesses but in its restraint. Beneath the Larkin hijinks and drunken shambling, Warner traces out achingly wrought emotional struggles, while resisting the temptation to embellish the play's true blue vernacular with jarring poetic indulgences. It is the very fact that these characters struggle to articulate the truth of their feelings, held back by salt of the earth social norms, that when tiny gestures of compassion manage to break through, the significance is undeniable.
The play's the thing - and what a thing it is - but this is only part of this production's near flawless accomplishment. Directed by Sharon Davis, there's barely a scene that isn't perfectly paced. While no doubt rigorously drilled, there's an uncanniness to the action that keeps this production feeling alert and spontaneous, and yet Davis is able to offer moments of deliberate theatricality when needed. A wurlitzer of cacophonous shouting turns on a pinhead into a spellbindingly still silence, full of pathos; it takes a lot of craft to organise such chaos.
While Warner's words are a gift to any actor, this cast take on these roles with total commitment and make them entirely their own. Of particular note, Lyall Brooks - who was, frankly, magnificent in A Prudent Man - expertly juggles the pendulum swing of Ben's emotions as he lurches from adoration to resentment to frustration. As Marilyn, Jane Clifton is worth the ticket price alone. While her characterisation is suitably domineering, there is an astonishing subtlety underpinning her performance. Much of the play's comedy is anchored to this role, but as glimpses of heartbreaking regret and vulnerability peek through the chinks in her formidable armour, she also becomes the most viscerally compelling presence on stage.
The play ends without any neat resolutions or convenient epiphanies, save for a few implied hopes. In fact, these characters are largely unchanged by this experience. Rather, it is us, the audience, who undergo the greatest transformation, as the deep, unbreakable connections that bind this seemingly dysfunctional family together, are revealed. It quietly uncovers, with effortless authenticity, a simple yet universal truth — the flawed yet indestructible power of unconditional love. Spencer is funny without being glib, moving without being sappy, and uplifting without being mawkish. It's a narrative that connects us to something beautifully lyrical through the unforced, uncomplicated language of the everyday. Simply put, this may very well be the birth of a future Australian classic.
Lab Kelpie presents Spencer till 28 May at Chapel Off Chapel.