By Nick Pilgrim

Please note: This review may contain spoilers. 

Melbourne is long-known both nationwide and around the globe as the theatre capital of Australia.

In a year when the city experienced more than 150 days of strict isolation, of the many industries suffering hardship and financial loss, none was impacted more than the performing arts.

Always buzzing with exciting activity and festivals galore, for the better part of 2020 it was surreal to walk through town’s theatre precinct standing darkened and silent.

As government restrictions slowly ease, live venues are beginning to spring back to life. What better way to celebrate, than to spend a solid hour with The Anniversary.

(Having stated this, a snap five-day lockdown meant I couldn’t review the piece a week ago as I had originally hoped. However, thanks to a special arrangement between the venue and the producers, the show did indeed go on.)

Positioned three flights underground on Flinders Lane, 45 Downstairs is one of Melbourne’s most versatile and flexible performance spaces. Their offerings range from musical cabaret to light comedy, or searing drama and solo spots, just to name a few.

Of the half-dozen or so works I have critiqued for the creative hub, these ventures include Boy Out Of The Country, Dead Royal, Kaleidoscope, Shrine, The Three Of Us and Trainspotting Live.

Quite unlike anything I have seen in my decade of reviewing, The Anniversary is a twisted yet humorous take on traditional and contemporary romantic pairings.  Without giving too much away, it could best be described as a quirky blend of physical clowning, European mime, and broad yet nuanced human characterisation.

This is an experience in which long-term partners, or viewers with parents or elderly relatives celebrating decades together, will immediately identify with and relate to the protagonists many foibles and idiosyncrasies.

Directed and devised with flair by Peter Houghton, The Anniversary is a two-hander starring Claire Bartholomew (as Barb) and Daniel Tobias (as Tim).

The pair (who share co-devising rights with Houghton) relish in the experience and dive head first. Picture TV stars Magda Szubanski and Glenn Robbins putting a personal spin on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Jean-Paul Sartre No Exit, Slava’s Snow Show by Slava Polunin, Jimmie Chinn’s A Different Way Home, or anything similarly absurdist, and you’ll get the idea.

Made up of a dozen skits and set pieces, Bartholomew and Tobias link these routines in chronological succession over the course of one very special day. Sensing where their counterpart is at any given moment, it must be said the duo bounce off each other with confident ease.

It took me a while to get The Anniversary lacks any real dialogue or true verbal communication.  Establishing a story in such a way is no easy task. By setting themselves these tight parameters, the actors are true veterans of their craft. Bartholomew and Tobias must be congratulated for capturing audience interest and sustaining viewers’ attention for the full 75-minute duration. She is the Yin to his Yang.

The Anniversary succeeds both on an artistic and technical level.

Lighting and Set Design by Bronwyn Pringle build on the narrative’s atmospheric whimsy. One example is her intelligent use of forced perspective. This key detail is maximised for laughs by both performers early on.

It should be noted that Bronwyn Pringle, Bruce Pringle, and Karine Larche are also responsible for Set Realisation and Construction.

Likewise, Sound Design and Composition by Ben Hense (Beat Tank Studio) highlights the journey’s humour and pathos at every turn.  Standout moments include Tim’s bloodied battle with a food processor, and Barb’s drug-addled morning routine.

These elements, combined with additional props and costumes from Emile Bloom and Trina Gaskell, heighten the tale’s intimate yet whacky charm.

Seamless stage and production management from Bindi Green, with assistant stage management by Douglas Stewart Hassock, make for a focussed and assured viewing experience.

Finally, special thanks must be given to 45 Downstairs’ front of house staff. Creating a safe space is one of the many challenges of social-distancing. Customers were given ample time to check-in, find their seats, and afterwards, were thanked for wearing face masks at all times.

It felt nice to be home again.