If my last review was of ‘The Ham Funeral’, this one may as well be called Ham Acting. ‘Something Natural But Very Childish’, directed by Julie Baz for the Sydney Independent Theatre Company and in their first outing as the new residents of the Old Fitz, they tried so hard to be good, so very, very hard to be good. But sometimes all you’re left with is the desperation and not the goods and that just about sums up this show.
‘Less is more’ should have been the adage of this show. Instead, Gary Abrahams’ script, based on Katherine Mansfield’s stories, was bombarded with as much detail on stage as possible, in expression, set, costumes, props, vocals, sound effects….this production presumed its audience would never understand its complexities so it gave it to us like a dumb show.
‘Something Natural But Very Childish’ explores three couples as they explore lost love or opportunities, or what reignites love that seemed lost. It’s filled with the hopes of finding someone who fulfils you and then examines what happens when it doesn’t. It’s not a new story and not a hard story to follow, even if we weave in and out of each duologue through time and the performance space.
What I don’t need is signposting of every shift. I don’t need train carriage noises with people sitting on bags, rocking and then telling me you’re on a train. I don’t need the larger than life expressions constantly in a theatre that might sit only 40 people. Perhaps if I was at the back of the Myer Music Bowl, watching the actors compete with a train actually on the stage in an Alfred Dampier melodrama, I might need large facial expressions. Here it was completely over the top. I don’t need the piano refrain in every transition. EVERY transition (and there were a lot as we moved from each scenario constantly). I didn’t need to see poor timing executed on stage, like when Margaux Harris (Anne) stamps her foot to stop laughing but she’s already stopped laughing and her facial expression has already changed to mortification before the foot ever moves to be stamped. Mostly I needed to not be in the front row when I couldn’t contain my hysteria at being trapped there and starting laughing until I cried.
The problem with ham acting is that nothing is believable and therefore, live or die, win or lose, who cares? If you’re trying to play with the tragicomedy of the play, and the introduction in the program states it is “combining classic drawing room comedy, surrealism and knife-edge Chekhovian like drama”, this production doesn’t succeed in achieving any of those styles. The actors, as directed I presume, are trying to ‘play the funny’. Nothing is as unfunny as someone who cleverly tries to show you how funny they are. Surely Chekhov understood with his characters that they had to be oblivious to how absurd they were. Baz should have utilised that concept a bit more. And how can you execute surrealism when your set and costumes (designed by Rachel Scane) are so detailed that you are firmly in the belly of realism? These styles worked against each other in this show and it imploded on stage because it couldn’t reconcile its parts.
Carla Nirella (Mrs Bullen) was probably the pick of the cast and if allowed to play with subtlety, she could have delivered more. Perhaps I could almost put Kieran Foster (Henry) in there had he been given a chance to play with the dimensions of that role. It’s hard to say. The actors might be better than this play suggests and its clear they’ve worked hard on it. But Julie Baz has not allowed them to find organic ways into character development so the contrived acting choices drive the audience away. The second half had about half the patrons, if that, and at interval I even had to seek out the three year old exposed M&M’s in the machine at the bar to get some sort of sugar to tide me over till the end of the play and perhaps it might explain my uncontrollable laughter in the second half. God knows, it wasn’t the comedy of the production that took me there.
These are lovely people who are involved in staging this play. They really are. But lovely doesn’t cut it with this show. The Old Fitz might be having conniptions after seeing the first play from their new tenants after years of quality from the Tamarama Rock Surfers.
I’d suggest SITCO invest in some subtlety, stat. Failing that, rancid chocolate at interval might do the trick.