Nicola Gunn and David Woods’ A Social Service brought a slice of absurdist social realism to the Malthouse theatre on Friday 14th. Its creators were intent on skewering the abysmal state of Victoria’s public housing committees, some of the worst in Australia and possibly the Southern Hemisphere.
First, a word on the subject matter. In the 2015 budget, public housing was ignored despite it being in crucial need of attention. There is a severe public housing shortage in Victoria and it’s going to cost upwards of $200 million to even begin to address the problem. 30,000 Victorians are on the waiting list for public housing, including the homeless, families and people unable to enter the workforce. Those who do have houses, sometimes single mothers with 5 or more children, are forced to live in 2 bedroom houses, cramming their kids wherever they might fit just to sleep for the night.
None of this is funny stuff, yet Friday’s audience regularly erupted in delighted laughter during the show. Weighing in on comedy as an “avenue” to explore these kinds of issues, Dr Kate Shaw—an expert on public housing and the arts, whom Gunn and Woods consulted for their play—says theatre can “make these matters meaningful and relevant” while humour makes the ideas more accessible.
Taking place in the intimate Beckett theatre, with its thin sliver of stage sandwiched between two blocks of seating, the stage was fully lit when we came in. This was a great choice by lighting designer Gwen Holmberg-Gilchrist, because it allowed us to take in the magnificent set and production design, put together by Gunn, Holmburg-Gilchrist and Eugyeene Teh. I couldn’t write my notes fast enough as I observed the unfinished mosaic table in the middle of the stage, the sickly bright green and orange walls and David Woods poking his head out of the left-stage wall, in beige ranger’s uniform, white framed glasses and wide-brimmed hat. On the other side was the receptionist’s window, in which a young girl sat with her back to the audience. A security camera in her office showed a wide shot of the middle stage. It was a fine reconstruction of a social service’s office, where everything’s supposed to look fine and dandy, as long as you don’t look too closely. Each object felt filled with meaning, suggesting a throwback to the theatre of British kitchen sink realism drama, where objects speak louder than words.
Woods kicked off the show with a warped version of the poem, “The House that Jack Built”. In this case, Jack’s house was a run-down community housing estate full of rats and rotten fruit, “The slum where poor people come”. Woods, a true Aussie character actor, plays an array of versatile characters ala Chris Lilley, including a morose and silent security guard, a deranged and raving housing member, Scottish manager Rory and not-quite-right prophet John, who envisions a utopian future for the housing estate. Each of his costumes is more ridiculous than the last, from a bright yellow safety vest to a pointed orange hat and trendy scarf. Eternally seated atop the unfinished mosaic is Shaan (played by Shaan Juma, who actually lives in Melbourne’s public housing). Shaan reads from the script he held in his hand in a deadpan tone of voice, asking the most pressing questions in the play.
Protagonist Nicola, played by Nicola Gunn, stands out as the most human character. She develops from her insufferably optimistic, ambitiously aimless beginnings, to a broken and more empathetic character, who finally learns to see that real people reside within these homes. It’s a commendable performance from Gunn that reveals a criticism of the other characters because, though funny, they rarely elevate above being caricatures.
Nicola is here to introduce a new community arts project, replacing Shaarn’s mosaic. “What does a mosaic do?” She asks. “It’s just a bit shit.” Other Nicola gems include: “People are just crying out for my radical activism” and when she describes her art as “Post-conceptual”.
Gunn and Woods don’t pull punches directed at the world of community art, either. Nicola is a parody of the student/artist-types who come into these low-income communities with their bachelor degrees, thinking they can change the world with their artistic visions. Because of its inclusion of two real community housing members (the other one was the girl in the receptionist box, who never spoke a word) the whole thing feels appropriately Meta. It’s a satirical poke at its own attempts to spread a political message through the medium of storytelling.
The plot follows Nicola’s introduction into the housing community and her attempts to start up a new, more ambitious and inclusive arts project. So far only Shaan has shown up, and it’s evident the mosaic project isn’t taking off. John regularly reappears on stage to divulge more of his vision for the future of the housing project which, he envisions, will have “vertical gardens” and an “enchanted castle in the sky with Charlize Theron on it”. Every time Rory reappears it’s to beat down one of Nicola’s ideas, demonstrating the tight budget and financial aspects of any government project.
Though the plot touches on some relevant issues, it lags and meanders. Isolated moments are entertaining but ultimately this is what the play is made up of: Comedic and satirical shorts, brilliant moments that lack a cohesive and engrossing narrative. It’s as if A Social Service, managed almost entirely by Woods and Gunn, suffers from being too collaborative. Perhaps an outside director with a different perspective could have controlled things more tightly. The script is well-written yet it seems to have little breathing room, constricted by a lack of clear direction.
At one point towards the end, many of the plot elements come together to create a breathtaking crescendo. David Woods is swapping costumes at break-neck speed, one moment appearing as John telling an anxious Nicola the developers are coming soon, the next moment he’s Rory, telling her there’s no money for art anymore. Ever the desperate optimist, Nicola is trying to tell Shaan a story about a Chinese New Year BBQ she attended and how great it was. She yells over the ramblings of John and a sound loop of yells of the deranged resident from earlier. Meanwhile an ambient soundtrack increases, with an eerie, cyclical loop of notes getting louder and louder—Nick Roux’s sound design here is excellent—and finally Rory bellows at Nicola, “Nobody wants you here!”
Nicola is shattered. She’s finally able to see the awful situation for people like Shaan, who have to sit and take all of this in silence, when all they want is a place to live. The play is really elevated in moments like these; its message is powerful, the narrative is controlled and delivers a dramatic conclusion. It’s just a shame Gunn and Woods can’t keep up this pace all the way through.