Toxic friendships built on unfair assumptions can be rich storytelling territory. It’s a shame, then, that Melbourne Writer’s Theatre’s production of The Agreement, written by Clare Mendes and directed by Elizabeth Walley, falls short of having anything interesting to say about the topic, despite moments of promise.
The play follows Mathilda (Emma Cox) and Cindy (Ciume Lochner), two old friends who become stranded in the desert after the bus taking them to a mutual friend’s hen’s party breaks down. Mathilda is cynical, acerbic and never had an opinion she didn’t immediately verbalise, while Cindy initially appears slightly more reserved and simple. Occasionally walking through the limited action is bus driver Guru Bob (Alec Gilbert), who seems to exist purely to spout pseudo philosophical rubbish that might be meant to be funny, but isn’t.
The cast are the best thing about The Agreement, and all three have strong stage presence and good chemistry; at least in the moments where the direction allows them to speak to each other rather than addressing the majority of their dialogue to the audience. This is frustrating as it’s often difficult to tell what is meant to be conversational and what is meant to be narration for our benefit. And while both Cox and Lochner convincingly traverse the emotional shifts in their characters’ relationships, the play seems somewhat under rehearsed, with many lines being flubbed, particularly in the more intense second half. This often causes the energy to flag and creates a sense that these strong actors are not a hundred percent confident with the text, making it difficult to be totally caught up in the action. It doesn’t help that, as written, both characters are so self-absorbed and difficult to like that it leaves us with precious little to invest in. The character of Cindy has some glimmers of development and the most engaging part of the play is when Mathilda has to confront the fact that her friend may have changed for the better while she has remained stagnant. It’s a strong foundation for conflict but the script quickly squanders it with a reveal that illustrates Cindy to be just as shallow and unpleasant as we initially suspected.
Alec Gilbert, meanwhile, seems to have wandered in from a different play, although this is hardly the actor’s fault as Guru Bob is such a one note, pantomime character that he becomes tiresome and irritating within minutes.
The play also seems thematically muddled. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about the meaning of the titular ‘agreement’, as it is teased several times to the point of frustration before it is explained in the show’s climax as something of a reveal, but suffice to say it is a flimsy concept on which to hang a drama, a notion about friendship that neither rings true nor is sufficiently indicted by the script for us to believe that the author legitimately believes it is garbage. And even if that was the point of the messy denouement, if a play exists solely to challenge a belief that is not widely held, then you kind of have to wonder what the point is.
The set is simple but effective, creating a memorable desert backdrop in the confines of the La Mama Courthouse, while lighting and music seemed compromised by some technical difficulties that lead me to suspect the whole play wasn’t as fully rehearsed as it could have been. This might have been the primary barrier to the actors really elevating the themes and story to something cohesive and thought provoking, but as its stands the show’s roughness serves only to draw attention to the flaws in the script and make the whole endeavour feel bland and pointless.