The modern scenario of couples retreat counselling is the latest offering from Here There and Everywhere Theatre company for the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, being staged at the National Theatre St Kilda. With prior nominations at various festivals and a sell out season at laMama in 2015, this third re-incarnation of “Couples” written by director and actor Phillip A Mayer features some new cast members and a new assistant director in fellow cast-mate Krissi Creighton. The simple staging of a semi-circle of chairs for the therapy sessions, a table of drinks and appropriate attire and props makes this an easy show to move and re-stage in almost any space. Placing the audience within the stage space on tiered seating created an appropriate and intimate atmosphere in the normally large theatre space. The catchy jingle of recorded music by Dani Capron and Mayer allowed a fitting transition for the short scene changes that denoted time passing at the retreat.
At only an hour long the story moves along quickly with snappy writing and quick one-liners – suitably delivered by the cast of ten. We open at Paradise Valley where four couples in need of relationship counselling arrive and not all are willing participants. The reluctance of all the men to be there and women working on the success of their marriages seems a little clichéd at first but does allow for many rapid jokes to fly as we see the ensemble meet and then gather to partake in some quick sessions through to some successful attempts at reconciliation and not so for others. Gags abound with establishing the disharmony and residential location of couples; the young newlyweds from Fitzroy, the rich couple of Toorak, a brash lawyer and her younger husband, a seemingly mismatched working class couple and of course the doctor therapist couple themselves who seem like they might have issues of their own.
The opening session of focusing on a past embarrassing incident not involving their partner created many funny opportunities; from sharing an embarrassing pick up of a ladyboy in Thailand, getting busted having sex by the boyfriend’s parents, and the clash of connecting braces. Karina Byrne as Dr Jessica Bialy really impressed with her natural and mannered delivery of advice and movements as did John Reisinger who was awkwardly suitable as the bumbling therapist husband Dr Edwin Bialy, though the casting together did feel a little mismatched and not fully fleshed out. Good chemistry was evident between the newlywed Bensteds, Phoebe (Shelby Fisher) and Steven (Dani Capron). Their arising tension from her interfering mother created some great comical moments, but more impressive was their silent natural and niggling interactions that never upstaged. Displaying more forceful friction was the standout performance of Mark Williams (Ash Kearns), who is the down trodden younger husband of the badgering lawyer Rachel (Katie Lee). His timing and droll throwaway quips were spot on. Their fiery relationship provides many laughs but the opportunity to emote more tender truth and not be so one level in the final therapy session was a missed occasion. Alice Krieger’s young starlet portrayal of Brittany Parnell grew in confidence as the show went on, especially as she tries to make her work obsessed husband Karl (Phillip A Mayer) spend more time with her. The gathering nature of the story allows for the ensemble to create many rapid fire exchanges, insulting retorts and even some physical altercations and these worked mostly well when not hampered by forced actions or awkward pauses. The session focusing on what one thing you’d change about your partner allowed the mood to shift at just the right moment, exploring some deeper aspects of the couples. Here, the building tension between the Duncans reaches its peak when Holly (Krissi Creighton) emotionally breaks down at how the loss of their son has affected their marriage. This scene was beautifully portrayed by Creighton, exuding heartfelt pain and sorrow. And it was at this juncture that the connection with husband Gary (Lucas Thomas) really came to the fore. His perhaps ‘too little too late’ recognition that his wife has reached the end of her tether was realistically played out. It was an incredibly moving story thread of a predominantly humorous show and well handled by all involved.
“Couples” is a fun and engaging show that provides plenty of amusement at the recognisable stereotypes of various pairings and how resolving relationship difficulties is often fraught and very much reliant on effective communication. The ending felt surprisingly abrupt with a lack of resolution in regard to some of the couple issues and without the panache we had witnessed in the hour earlier but this is a small quibble on a solid hour of entertainment. With plenty of clever moments and realistic portrayals, this Gippsland troupe is worth trying to catch if battle of the sexes comedy is your thing.