By Darby Turnbull
About 20 minutes into Stage Mom’s Love you Bitch, I pondered if I could really sit through another blithe, bitchy, queer millennial comedy of bad manners? Turns out yes, I absolutely can, I’d grossly underestimated the incisive, cutting wit of Alberto Di Troia’s text and the psychological depth of what was to come. Di Troia alongside director Hannah Fallowfield, production manager Max Woods and stupendous cast, Alex Thew, Kurt Pimblett and Tenielle Thompson have crafted an insightful, merciless and unexpectedly moving character study of late twenties ennui though the lens of three narcissistic, self-deluding, entitled individuals. The triumph is that they make us care for these people without excusing their behaviour.
Jem (Alex Thew) a twink on the verge of twunkdom is throwing a bon voyage gathering in the guesthouse of his parents beach house for his two most intimate friends Ella (Tenielle Thompson) and Harry (Kurt Pimblett) his VCA film school buddies before he makes a permanent move to New York. Jem, recently single makes vapid small talk, quips on the wrong side of sassy and is constantly trying to get the others to validate his need to hook up with his ex who is constantly messaging and calling. Ella and Harry are both in long term relationships and seem to be basing their identities and futures on the partners; Ella is in her first year of a Psychology degree, and like a certain class of first year psychology students is convinced she’s already accredited and feels entitled to make clinical observations backed by text-book phasing. Whilst Harry, the quieter of the two is on the verge of moving to a ‘self-sustaining’ shared property with his, as Jem calls him; communist boyfriend. Harry has subtle holier than thou attitude and throws around phases like ‘radical honesty’ without a clue of how to practice it. Each have secrets and lingering resentments towards the other and with the help of a bottle of wine each and noxious insecurity they’ll spend their last night together tearing each other apart and exposing the painful toxins within.
Alex Thew is astounding as Jem; the party boy who’s done everything (and everyone) and is only just realising that it hasn’t fulfilled him at all. The one who’s allowed himself to be the butt of the joke and perhaps only fully comprehending how much it hurts. He’s someone who actively deceives himself but has an uncanny insight into exposing the truths of others. His nihilism is fascinating; some of the most powerful moments come from his more bitter insights into the futility of things and the ways despite some social progress, queer people are still emotionally and socially marginalised. Thew plays all his contradictions flawlessly; a larger than life character that’s steeped in realism. Jem as played by Thew feels like a 21st century Blanche Dubois or Olive from Summer of the seventeenth doll.
Kurt Pimblett is a master at understatement; Harry the more down to earth of the three and the most convinced that he’s a ‘good person’ he’s clearly done a lot of work on saying and thinking the right things without a thorough understanding of what they may mean, which make his moments of hypocrisy all the more upsetting. He’s seemingly settled into his role as middle man and peace keeper but is not beneath pushing boundaries or manipulating the conversation or catharsis into where he thinks it needs to go. He and Thew have a few moments of beautiful tenderness honouring the comradery that queer people can build together through shared growth and trauma. Pimblett creates some fascinating vocal layers whilst remaining ostensibly calm finding some clear nuance between what Harry believes, doesn’t believe or thinks he believes.
Tenielle Thompson is a diminutive force of nature as Ella; a woman who’s probably very convinced she’s quite a nice person, but her meanness and vindictiveness make itself known in some insidious ways. Namely her willingness to weaponize her supposed psychological insights claiming she’s ‘helping’ but really asserting the dominance she feels is hers to claim. Which, as a later revelation shows is completely understandable; as a woman in male spaces she doesn’t feel safe; one thing I felt the writing could have explored with more nuance is the ways queer men can make certain spaces unsafe for women and femme individuals. Thompson has a masterful sneer which she uses to terrific effect to show off her disdain and some of her more latent issues; notably some homophobia that keeps bubbling to the surface which she’d never admit to because ‘her best friends are gay’. Her ultimate breakdown and fragility is a testament to Thompson’s courage and commitment as a performer.
One of the strongest elements of the texts is the exploration of how privilege can warp identity creating a lack of empathy and introspection. These three deeply unlikeable people have been raised to be in competition with those around them and to ignore the significance of the opportunities they have preferring instead to make proclamations about working on themselves without actually doing, ultimately to the cost of themselves and the people around them. The brilliance of this production is that the cast under the direction of Hannah Fallowfield have approached the materiel with the opposite effect, creating a clear sited and humane exploration of some very recognisable people. The whole company has created and atmosphere of incredible psychological and physical naturalism that doesn’t fall into parody or camp. From my perspective, not a single moment felt false or unbalanced. I found it thrillingly uncomfortable to watch.
Love you bitch has sold out its very short season at Theatreworks but I sincerely encourage readers to follow Stage Mom and all the creatives involved work and hopefully this exemplary play will receive another season.
Images: Peter Frith