Nick Enright wrote A Man with Five Children in 1999, before the dawn of the era in which reality programming became so overrepresented on our television screens. It was the year before local audiences received their first taste of Survivor, two years before the Orwellian notion of Big Brother became the basis for another phenomenon on Australian TV, and a full seven years before any of the Real Housewives franchises was inflicted upon us.

As a result, the themes at the crux of A Man with Five Children force its audiences to grapple with questions even more germane today than when Enright’s work premiered.

The play tells the story of documentary filmmaker, Gerry (Jeremy Waters). He conceives a project that will see him filming the movements of five children for one day each year until each child turns 21. Those movements are documented for an annual television show. It’s a concept inspired by Paul Almond and Michael Apted’s Up series of films.

The five children Gerry chooses as subjects for his project are vastly different personalities, but these individuals will become bonded for life in a manner that only they can understand.

As the story progresses and various events play out in each of the five’s lives, the text prompts the manner of Gerry’s interaction with his subjects to become the firm focus of the piece. Initially the filmmaker, whose role in events is mere observer with a camera, Gerry’s own significance in the story of each individual begins to heighten. Unsurprisingly, the length of the project stretches far beyond the 21st birthdays of the participants, and Gerry’s involvement in each of their lives becomes far greater than the originally allotted day per year. And the documentary filmmaker is no longer a disinterested party, but an active participant in the events preserved on film, which of course also shapes what it is that’s included in the annual films and the perspective from which those events are captured. More disturbingly, however, is a revelation that comes late in the piece, which indicates the manipulative behaviour in which Gerry has engaged in the name of creating memorable TV viewing.

a man with five children, nick enright  darlinghurst theatre, photo by helen white

The cast of A Man with Five Children (Photo by Helen White)

Gerry’s own frank admission as to what he wants the documentary series to achieve is portrayed in a beautifully acted and directed moment in the final moments of the piece. It’s a fitting finale to a remarkably compelling and thought-provoking night at the theatre.

Skuse’s direction ensures the prevailing messages of A Man with Five Children are delivered to its audiences with wonderful clarity and impact. He’s also assembled a strong cast, his actors proving themselves well and truly up to the task of taking on Enright’s characters. Jemwel Danao’s characterisation is defined by such pathos from the outset that he’s tremendously effective in evoking immense sympathy for Roger’s tragic plight. As Gerry’s ‘favourite’, Jessie, Chenoa Deemal is endearing and utterly likable. Charlotte Hazzard impresses as the headstrong and highly intelligent Susannah, a character that has some success in helping Gerry to comprehend a descent in his behaviour as documentary filmmaker. Jody Kennedy convinces as the introverted Zoe, and Taylor Wiese is excellent as the seemingly neglected but stoic football player, Cameron. Ildiko Susany, Anthony Taufa and Aaron Tsindos offer strong support.

While there’s no denying the presence Waters has onstage and the conviction with which his lines are delivered, a question that lingers is whether his Gerry would be able to succeed in engaging his players for as long as, and to the extent that, he succeeds in doing. Is his Gerry charismatic or magnetic enough to be able to weave himself into the lives of his subjects well into adulthood? The believability of all the piece’s key events hinge on whether we buy into Gerry’s influence.

a man with five children, nick enright  darlinghurst theatre, photo by helen white

Jemwel Danao in A Man with Five Children (Photo by Helen White)

Production designer, Georgia Hopkins, and AV designer, Tim Hope, have worked well to create an environment for the piece that is strikingly minimal in terms of physical set pieces, but perfectly incorporates the use of projection throughout. Too often, projection technology becomes a hindrance in a theatrical piece rather than a tool that effectively complements its other design aspects. Here, it’s an essential component of the visual landscape, and meaningfully contributes to the movement of the narrative. In fact, this is easily some of the best use of projection technology in Sydney theatre in recent times. Katelyn Shaw’s soundscape is, on the whole, an effectively integrated addition.

A Man with Five Children is everything the types of reality documentaries it references seek to be – entertaining, evocative, relevant and captivating. It compels us to question whether any film purporting to offer a nonpartisan documentation of a life or a moment in time can ever truly be labelled impartial. Is the product ever delivered to its end user unencumbered by some bias or take on its subject, and is it inevitable that we ultimately insert our own selves into the drama?

A Man with Five Children plays at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until June 26. To purchase tickets, click here