Cracked Smiles follows the story of eight psychopaths in the common room of a mental asylum. Don’t worry if you forget they are psychopaths though, you will be reminded many, many times throughout the next two and a half hours. Unfortunately you will need the nudges because apart from the characters saying they are psychopaths all the time, there is no real indication otherwise that they are mentally unstable.
This is Kieran Gould-Dowen’s latest piece of writing after taking up the craft six and a half years ago. As with the last time I saw one of Gould-Dowen’s plays performed, this is full of many half-baked ideas that never get fully explored but instead get repeated time and time again throughout at a surface level. We get it, that guy hates black people, that guy loves power, that girl hates herself and they are all psychopathic killers. The writing tends to go around in circles and many of the character’s thoughts and lines come from nowhere giving the actors very little chance to build any sort of real emotion. Quickly running your eye down Gould-Dowen’s impressively busy profile may suggest that his script hasn’t had the love or re-writes it so desperately needs.
The production has two co-directors in Jacinta Scadden and Gemma Flannery and it shows that there were two directors. It felt like there wasn’t a concrete plan from a director about the direction the show should be taken in, but instead felt like the performances and the production was in no man’s land. Blocking was a basic issue at many times during the show and the actors had no clear through line with anything that they did. Personally, I have never seen a co-directed production work (including one I tried it with), as there is no clear vision and usually too much time is spent deliberating between directors and the actors are left in limbo. It certainly felt like this was the case with Cracked Smiles.
All of this led to the actors having lacklustre performances for the entirety of the show. As I felt the fundamental issues extended across the entire cast, I won’t single anyone out. There was little to no through line or subtext with any of the characters and characterisation was either minimal or bizarrely over the top. So many times actors would scream their lines out of nowhere which made what they were saying not believable in the slightest. The performers rarely picked up their cues leaving horribly big pauses that you could drive trucks through. This is partly to blame on the writing and the direction but not knowing your lines is unforgivable. Too many times actors forgot their lines leaving gaping holes in dialogue. It screamed laziness and complacency. The sound cuts in between scenes also felt thrown together.
I hate writing such a negative review as it serves no purpose but trying to be constructive with a production where it felt no one really cared is extremely difficult. If the production is to be truly ‘heavy, confronting, and a lot to take in,’ I would suggest the script needs to go back to the drawing board, it needs to be workshopped and re-drafted many times. It needs to be crafted thoughtfully instead of just churning out another one. It needs to be read aloud many times with people in the room that are going to be brutally honest. After that, it needs one director at the helm with a clear vision, someone who can get a dedicated and committed cast together and draw out of them the things that this script would demand. In the short term, I would encourage the performers to sit down and really delve deeply into the subtext of their characters. Until then it isn’t going to leave people with many smiles, not even cracked ones.