The University of Melbourne’s newest theatre company, Melbourne Uni Modern Theatre, couldn’t have chosen a stronger play through which to make their debut. Annie Baker’s The Flick, awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is funny, smart and deceptively deep, chronicling the workdays-and-nights of two ushers and a projectionist at a suburban cinema in Massachusetts. Such playwriting prowess requires equally strong direction, admirably provided by Arthur Knight. Knight has shortened the play slightly from its hefty original two hours and fifty minutes, not including interval, a smart choice which made the play much more accessible: all but the most avid theatre fan would find an over three hour show a big ask. In fact, the play’s first run was deeply polarizing. Many early audiences found its slow pacing and mundane setting so mind-numbing they walked out of the show, resulting in the artistic director publishing an open letter defending the work. MU Modern’s version allows the audience to revel in the everyday dramas of its real-feeling characters in much the same way, though without dwelling overly on extended silences or scenes of floor-sweeping. There’s an argument to be made that the mundanity is part of what makes this play the comment on modern life that it is, and helps to sell its hyper-realistic style, but practically I think MU Modern’s decision to shorten the Pinter Pauses is a smart one. Silence is still here, after all, and is cleverly used – I feel every second of awkward or bored silence which reverberates through the movie theatre, the play’s only set.
In a brilliant show of use-what-you’ve-got set design, the audience is facing the Guild Theatre’s rows of benches, upon which they would usually sit. The windows into the sound and lighting booth become peep holes into the projection room of The Flick, a one-screen cinema that’s home to one of the state’s last 35-millimetre projectors. Said projector beams light into the audience’s eyes several times throughout the play, while filmic scores play – we’re voyeurs behind the movie screen. These interstitial moments aren’t quite as effective as they could be – the light is blindingly bright, causing some audience members to shield their eyes, and the film scores feel like they are intended to be significant symbolically, but were too specific to be legible. We can’t see the films The Flick is showing, but we see the characters watch them. We hear them argue over whether there’s been a great American film made in the last decade, quote from their favourite films, and mock each other’s film favourites.
This show, with its focus on the personal, is made or broken by its actors. Luckily, Timothy Smith, Victory Ndukwe and Catherine Ward are well-cast and more than up to the job. The actors imbue their characters with the perfect amount of quotidian complexity, finding comedy and pathos in everyday tasks and small talk. Ndukwe’s Avery, who is on his first shift when the play opens, is a cinephile bordering on cinema snob, drawn to The Flick for its old-school projector. Smith’s Sam serves as his slightly world-weary mentor, a charmingly average man whose heartache is played pitch-perfectly. The object of Sam’s affections, Ward’s Rose, is so much more than a love interest. Poignantly layered, her cool-girl exterior is conveyed through excellent costuming – band shirts and ripped jeans that feel dead-on to her personality. She’s snarky and a little goofy, confident yet invested with a vulnerability that speaks to the actor’s skill and nuance. Despite his relatively shorter stage time, James Robertson is memorable and funny as Skyler, who takes up the usher’s broom and dustpan toward the end of the play. While I admire each actors’ decent stab at an American accent, I can’t help but be curious what a version which re-contextualises the play into an Australian setting could have brought to this production – there would be no need to change the movies referenced, after all. Ultimately though, the cast contend with the difficultly of a hyper-naturalistic script in a dialect that is not their own very well.
The Flick is a love letter to cinema and a treatise on the march of progress, which sometimes tramples over the best things, and the best people. MU Modern’s version captures its spirit, a harbinger of good things to come for this new company.
Melbourne University Modern Theatre’s production of The Flick ran from 3 – 6 April in the Guild Theatre.