It’s interesting because as I took my seat last Thursday night to watch A social service I was simultaneously ending a robust discussion with my cousin about mediocrity and how it’s always preferable to see something really awful than something middle of the range. Pretentious, I know- just like the characters in the play, funnily enough. Additionally, I have a tendency to judge plays, films and books on whether they stay with me in the days that follow the production and despite the fact that A Social Service was certainly not mediocre by any stretch of the imagination, it didn’t beg me to question anything, nor have I really thought of it since preview night, Thursday the 13th. This is not really a criticism of the play but more a comment upon reflection.
Essentially, I didn’t not enjoy A Social Service but felt that the choices made with respect to character development (particularly the lead, played by Nicola Gunn), meant that I couldn’t wholly connect with the their respective plights; I wasn’t really sure about what they all wanted either and ultimately I couldn’t invest in the story.
Due to the socially conscious nature of the content, I would image the co-creators, Nicola Gunn and David Woods were aiming for audiences to get something considerably more substantial out of it but unfortunately, the lack of character development; the central characters that were really caricatures and the easy laughs that came along with those characterisations, meant that I left feeling underwhelmed.
With that said, there was a fringe character (most certainly a caricatures) that had me in stitches and that was the apathetic security guard adorning an ill-fitting Hi-Vis and surely one of the most ridiculous wigs I have ever seen (played brilliantly by David Woods). Had the central characters had more depth, it would have bolstered characters such as this even further but it just wasn’t there in the writing. David Woods did play an impressive three vastly different characters and began the play reciting lines from “The House that Jack Built” which had me intrigued from the outset. This was a bold, effective opening but the play’s inconsistencies began shortly after this robust preface.
Critically speaking there were a number of aspects of the play that didn’t make sense to me. The third act (if you will) presented pacing issues and a plethora of new problems seemed to have been suddenly highlighted for the characters, resulting in mass confusion for me as an audience member. On this, the content of the play seemed relatively esoteric, which makes sense because the idea for the play came to co-creator Nicola Gunn when she was completing her Masters at RMIT, doing a study on ‘contested space’ and more specifically, the contested space at housing commissions. It teetered on the edge of being a parody but didn’t quite get there. I was also thoroughly confused about the character of Shaan reading from a script throughout. I know it was meant to be symbolic but this didn’t work and it just looked as if a main cast member had dropped out at the last minute and they had to hurriedly recast- hence the script in hand. I would imagine this wasn’t the intention.
What I thought was an interesting notion that was ultimately underexplored for me was this idea of trying to be a better person and going about it in all the wrong ways. This to me, was an interesting, relatable characteristic of Nicola’s character but again, lacked substance. It was ultimately an idea explored superficially rather than delving deeper to see where that innate desire had come from within the character.
On a different note, the set design was excellent. I love to see plays at the Malthouse and even better is seeing them in the Beckett theatre. While my cousin found it distracting to sit opposite the audience with the action unfolding in the middle, I find it (as I always do) visually stimulating. This production’s strengths for me really lay in the background cast, the blocking and the set design. Herein lies my biggest criticism of the show, I connected with elements other than the script, the characters and the overall concept.
While the play’s intention may have been to shed light on public housing, gentrification and class, I sadly wasn’t compelled to think about these things any differently. While I’ve given it three stars for being a pretty solid production otherwise, it failed to illuminate anything I didn’t already know about spoilt white girls from Brunswick with a penchant for ‘fixing things’ in communities they know little to nothing about. The audience seemed to love it though with raucous laughter throughout so perhaps it just wasn’t my night for A Social Service.