This time last year when the MTC announced that their October slot in the Sumner Theatre was being held open for a fresh, topical new play as yet unselected, it drew a fair degree of excitement as to what this month would bring. When it was later announced that a play written by Melbourne’s own Eddie Perfect – better known for his role on TV’s Offspring and cabaret and musical theatre offerings – was to take the opening, the anticipation around the production became electric. Therefore, The Beast has opened with far more than the usual pressure of expectation placed upon a new Australian play.
Perfect’s trademark skewering of the pompous and arrogant is squarely on show in this tale of a trio of thirty something hipsters who, following a fateful fishing trip, dedicate their futures to living a virtuous, organic lifestyle with their partners. The one-upmanship of ethically responsible eating and biodynamically produced wines proves the often decidedly ignoble nature of those obsessed by ‘doing the right thing’.
Fantastically witty, mordantly biting and downright bawdy at times, for the most part this play is very funny. Never more so than when our three couples gather for a dinner party in honour of nose-to-tail dining and the butcher hired to slaughter their specially selected calf is a no show, leaving the morbid task in their painfully inept hands.
Perfect’s characters are well defined. Hamish Michael is perfectly slimy as the posturing alpha-male wanker, Simon; Sheridan Harbridge his abused, naïve and neurotic wife Gen gives a precise and droll performance. Tom Budge as the nebbish, emotional wreck Rob is a delightfully physical funnyman, while Virginia Gay, as his domineering and posturing wife Sue, proves herself to be a consummate comedian, bringing so much more humour to her role than would have been written on the page. Travis Cotton plays the underdog Baird with subtlety and a knowing wink to the audience’s perspective on events. His wife Marge, as portrayed by Kate Mulvany with swaggering confidence is the dissenter of the group. Hayden Spencer rounds out the cast in a quartet of amusingly presented supporting roles.
It’s difficult to determine if it’s Perfect’s script or Iain Sinclair’s direction that is responsible for the phallically obsessed humour that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Are You Being Served? While broadly amusing for the most part, the continual stroking, sucking and petting of such objects degrades the play in its overly long second act and makes for a tediously pointless coda.
Luke Ede’s set design is charming and diverse. From homes inspired by Grand Designs and authentic looking farmyards, to a meatpacking truck and a boat deck, this script asks a lot and Ede’s set wonderfully delivers. A particular delight is Meg Ashford’s ‘War Cow’ puppet and related special effects. Esther Marie Hayes’ costumes are spot on.
Ultimately, this production is one that you’ll want to like more than you can. There’s plenty of big laughs to be had, a genuinely amusing premise, and a gloriously gruesome Act One finale, but the second act overstays its welcome, and doesn’t draw any great conclusions for its characters, leaving you wondering if you could have been home forty minutes earlier.
Nevertheless, this confident and entertaining enough debut should hopefully spur companies to encourage Perfect to further outings and a more finely honed sophomore script.