David Williamson fulfils the double whammy at the Ensemble this month by not only writing but also directing his latest work, ‘Cruise Control’. The play is set on a cruise ship and centres around three couples: one British, one American and one Australian and their relationships with each other as well as their cultural differences. I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke and Williamson’s play is like an elongated sketch with predictable stereotypes but it is infinitely watchable even if it’s as obvious as you’d expect from his body of work.
There are some genuinely funny lines. I think the lines referring to dentist Sol Wasserman (Henry Szeps) and his novella ‘molarcaust’ or Silky Wasserman’s (Kate Fitzpatrick) ‘snake-slithering’ insults may have brought the house down. And Williamson is not beyond poking fun at his own work. Novelist Richard Manton (played by Felix Williamson, keeping it in the family) speaks of how much critics enjoyed his early work and solidly damn his later writing and I couldn’t help but think some of that must have been self-referential and tongue-in-cheek. What Williamson does do well is build towards tension and then know when to break it. Whether it be a moment of domestic violence or sexual tension, Williamson has honed his craft and so regardless of the narrative or character flaws, the play’s structure holds an audience’s engagement throughout the course of the play.
Having said that, the last scene is completely redundant. I won’t give it away but it does not take a rocket scientist to work out what has happened- it is well signposted or implied in the narrative and so having to show us what we’ve already guessed feels not only a wasted chance to end the play cleanly but also suggests that we must be a bunch of idiots in the audience to not have figured it out. And there lies the contradiction of Williamson. Whilst he creates plays with humour, he just doesn’t know when to stop. He needs a good editor or dramaturg who can help him find the lost art of subtlety. Williamson turns up the dial on each of his characters so that they lack credible belief. They are archetypes trying to be three-dimensional and not quite making it. Take Aussie Bra-boy Darren Brodie (Peter Phelps). Not only is the accent heightened and in his very first scene he is refusing to wear a suit to dinner with his Ascham-educated wife Imogen (Helen Dallimore) as he berates her for sleeping with his best friend but then Williamson tries to give him layers by having him use the occasional phrase or word of a university educated man and it feels completely out of place. It’s implausible and unnecessary. He’s a thug and a bully, even with heart, and the idea of a self-educated master of the Oxford thesaurus is far-fetched. Why do we need it? Does it matter if he's a literary luddite? Richard Manton is the consummate English villain, the Wasserman’s are the Jewish neurotic parents and that leaves us with Fiona Manton (Michelle Doake) who is Richard’s long-suffering wife, the damsel in distress, who can only be saved by the love of another man. The dial has been turned up to extreme and so the play is entertainingly superficial. It’s modern melodrama.
There are some solid performances on offer, particularly the women of the play. Dallimore, Doake and Fitzpatrick are far more polished and manage to deliver their characters with humour and emotion. Felix Williamson has also mastered the archetypal villain and is thorough in his execution of dastardly deeds. Szeps is still stumbling through the play- his lines don’t quite feel down and the gaps in delivery mean timing and rhythm also falter, and Phelps had lots of good moments but there felt like there were plenty of unfinished actions- he pulls out of committing right to the end of an action before the lights go down or the scene was finished. He needs to keep his intensity all the way to the end. Kenneth Moraleda’s Charlie, the on-board Filipino waiter, is merely there to contrast the opulent lifestyle we all take for granted and we can judge ourselves or our culture from each character’s treatment of him. He is functional more than fully-fleshed out. But Moraleda does what he can with what he’s been given and he’s likable even if he’s ‘thin’ in role.
Marissa Dale-Johnson’s set does manage to encapsulate the many locations using the smallest amount of space and she places us firmly on the ship using every level at her disposal. I would have liked less movement as a general rule as the play is trying to do too much with too little but Dale-Johnson’s set at least makes it possible to fulfil all of Williamson’s requirements.
I liked the play and looking around, so did the audience. I think it’s been well-cast and it’s got lots of Williamson humour and wit to enjoy. It’s superficial, archetypical and melodramatic but after all, you’re going to see Williamson. Surely this is no surprise.