Playwright Katy Warner’s newest work SPENCER is touching, hilarious and Australian. Produced by Lab Kelpie’s Adam Fawcett and directed by Sharon Davis, the play is debuting at the intimate Chapel Off Chapel theatre.
Scott (Jamieson Caldwell) is a man well on his way to becoming an AFL star but has come home to regain his focus before the next season. His mother (Jane Clifton) is tough as nails but also Scott’s biggest fan and glad to have him back. Her older son Ben, played by Lyall Brooks, not so much. An out of shape has-been who likes to stir the pot, Ben is as funny as he is fiery. This is part of the reason he was never able to ‘make it’ at footy and instead lives his dream through his brother. The three of them are preparing the house for Spencer, Scott’s two year old son whom none of them have met. With the arrival of the eldest sibling, Jules (Fiona Harris) and their emotionally absent father Ian (Roger Oakley) shouting matches begin and deep seated family issues are dragged out of their dens.
Warner accomplishes something special through the play’s script. She is able to craft a story with a message more profound than the average modern Australian drama and keeps the audience laughing all the while. The writing is tight and the narrative always has momentum behind it. Warner achieves an excellent interrogation of the meaning of family by demonstrating its role as both a source of immense pain and tremendous joy. Reassuringly, she also shows that for every instance of brotherly or sisterly betrayal there is an example of siblings’ capacity for camaraderie.
The performances are outstanding. The whole cast have strong theatre roots and accomplished careers, bringing obvious passion to their roles. As testament to his conviction, Brooks seemed to nearly pull down a wall as a drunken Ben, but never lost his composure through the audience’s fits of laughter. Clifton was exceptional also. She captured the motherly figure who could at once be endlessly loving and proud, only to suddenly turn into the stern and cold voice of authority.
Credit here must also be given to Davis’ direction, With much action and many stage directions, there is a risk that things may become muddled or overdone. Her clear and fluid blocking does away with these worries and keeps the pace energy high. Despite decorations coming down and siblings chasing one another through the house, method in the madness is clear.
Set design by Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen’s is cozy and has a sense of familiarity. The living room, as the centre of the action, is made to feel authentic through its intricate detail, with portraits of the siblings hanging on the wall, growth charts, medals and awards. The crew have gone the extra mile by constructing parts of rooms to the side which add to the realism.
My sole, niggling critique was that a moment of calm inserted between the many heated exchanges might have provided some punctuating stillness. There were a few times where I thought we were going to witness the family at ease. But all too soon rivalry would flare up again and expletives would be lobbed from all directions. Perhaps that’s Warner’s point: it’s hard to catch your breath in a household at war. Ultimately, SPENCER delivers a night of hilarity with a serious message – not to take our family for granted.
Lab Kelpie’s production of SPENCER runs from the 11th – 28th of May at Chapel off Chapel
Image credit: Pier Carthew