A family with three adult children. A daughter struggling to keep a job or a man. A son who is just a bit of a fuck up. The youngest son is the one who’ll be something, right? A desperate mother believes it completely. Their abandoning father will turn up right at the perfect (read: worst) time. Their words can make or break a moment. They tear each other apart before they build each other up again.
Spencer’s intricate set is that of a lounge room you’ve been in or perhaps grew up in. The blackboard has the shopping list – paddle pops, BBQ shapes – on it, a reminder for Ben’s dentist appointment amongst other notes. There are oodles of family photos, junior sports trophies, a slightly outdated yet beloved stereo, a hanging pot plant, pendant lights, board games, and a worn and slightly-too-small couch. This is lower-middle class Australian suburbia at its most typical.
That’s what Katy Warner does almost unbelievably well. She takes typical life and lets it explode organically on stage in the most wondrous way. Sharon Davis directing lets this material soar. The small glances between siblings and inside jokes and interrupted sentences and the total normalness of all this delivers some of the heartiest responses and laughter from the audience.
It’s difficult to understand how Katy Warner hasn’t been snatched up by a major theatre company in Australia. Her work is incredible and brave and gutsy and full of everything you long for in those shows you leave feeling a bit “meh” about. It would seem Warner can do no wrong. She has an astonishing knack for sliding into all the nooks and crannies of our flawed humanness and exposing it in all its messed up glory.
Lyall Brooks as Ben is spectacular. A titan on stage, he perfectly encapsulates this fuck up of a character written specifically by Warner for him. From snot-ridden breakdowns while describing the perfectly mixed bowl of Coco Pops, to anti-women rants, he seems like a bit of a prick. Ultimately, there’s a softness and warmth under the hard exterior he’s formed to be able to deal with the stinging words constantly thrown his way. Brooks navigates this sausage-roll obsessed, Auskick coach with impressive dexterity. He bares everything – very nearly literally everything thanks to the costume – and delivers another truly memorable performance.
Scott (Jamieson Caldwell) is a conflicted new dad fighting through the difficulties of trying to be ‘one of the guys’, trying to live up to his family’s expectations of him, trying to work out just what it is that he wants in life. He’s used to everyone else telling him what to do or at the very least, strongly suggesting it. Caldwell is earnest in this sensitivity and lets us all feel his vulnerability.
Jules (Fiona Harris) faces the difficulties of growing up around men who still believe it’s a man’s world. She tries her best to be responsible and keep things together. She tries her best to gain her parents’ approval and acceptance. She highlights how much everyone in this family are trying. Harris traverses this damaged woman with a delicate finesse. Jules has two brothers so she needs to be able to stand firm, but it doesn’t mean she loves it.
Marilyn (Jane Clifton) desperately wants the best for her children. As each reveals they won’t or can’t be what she wants, she moves to the next youngest and doubles or triples her efforts. Her obsessive over-the-top planning for meeting her grandson is such a mum thing. Her life revolves around the fact that she is a mum. Clifton takes this character that could very easily be jarring and challenging and makes her endearing and recognisable. Clifton’s drunken mess is a highlight of the show.
Ian (Roger Oakley) is painfully unaware. He rocks up, decides to stay and that despite 18 years, this is still his home and family. He’s Ian, despite his best efforts to be called Dad. He doesn’t know anything about who his children are now, despite remembering sweet moments of their childhood. Oakley’s total commitment to the character who doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong is quite impressive. It’s easy to dislike this guy who continually let his children down. This performance is surprisingly powerful. He did incredibly well to push through a rogue streamer on opening night.
The scene transitions are clever. Music these siblings would’ve listened to growing up plays as they go about fairly typical stuff they’d be doing in their home to change the scene. There’s a lot of stuff in this home, so it’s imperative that when props go flying – and they do – that this cast improvise and get on with it – and they do.
With Spencer, Adam Fawcett and Lyall Brooks continue to prove that Lab Kelpie delivers impressive, interesting, independent theatre. It’s exciting that new productions and writers have the opportunity for their work to be presented with such an impeccable creative team backing them.
Spencer is full of love and family and all the crap that happens with those two things. It’s funny because it’s true. It’s touching because we’ve all be there. It’ll stick in your mind because more than anything, you can see yourself and your loved ones reflected back at you from that messy home that’s full of the familiar.
Spencer is on at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel until 28 May 2017.
Image Credit: Pier Carthew