It’s a hard sell to position a play about death and dying as an uplifting experience, but Australian playwright Aidan Fennessy’s wonderful new play does just that. Through a marvellously truthful portrayal of life, both the humour and pathos of the human experience as it reaches its conclusion, is brought to bear in a deeply moving piece of superb theatre.
Sixty-somethings John (Nicholas Bell) and Helen (Linda Cropper) are a couple that know each other too well – equal parts frustrated and endeared by each other’s interests and foibles. John knows Helen is looking for her glasses – and where they are – even before she starts looking for them, while he’s constantly misplacing his own things, deck oil being a particularly hidden object. Helen also won’t stand in the way of his love for costumed recreations of medieval battles, but a week-long trip to the UK to participate in a Battle of Flodden re-enactment has created a problem. Helen is recovering from chemotherapy yet insistent that John attend his beloved event, so he somewhat reluctantly agrees to go after interviewing temporary live-in carers to help her while he’s away.
Their rule of ‘no male carers’ is quickly overlooked when Lennie (Johnny Carr), someone who comes recommended by Helen’s sister, but who looks more like a tradie, sidles into their home and quickly convinces them that he’s the man for the job. It’s a classic odd couple pairing, but Fennessy’s script has nuance that elevates it past the routine; Lennie’s infectious ‘lust for life’ and Helen’s steely determination with a hint mischief makes for a charming blend of characters.
Lennie quickly sets to breaking all John’s rules, causing an incendiary altercation when Helen’s barrister son Jeremy (Stephen Phillips), who has been largely absent from her life of recent, turns up and casts doubt on Lennie’s intentions.
It’s a massive credit to Fennessy’s script that it goes through a variety of plot turns that could see the story logically end in myriad ways. The ultimate direction chosen is both gut-wrenchingly tragic and heart-breakingly beautiful. An audience that was just belly-laughing at the charmingly familiar characters will find themselves in floods of tears as the play reaches its stunning conclusion. This is a story about appreciating the life you have, accepting that life will end and respecting a person’s right to choose how that will happen.
Director Peter Houghton has done a superb job of balancing the comedy and tragedy of the script, creating a palpable warmth and rapport between his actors that truly feels so much like real family that it’s impossible not to be completely moved by their portrayals. Cropper gives the performance of her career, committing herself utterly to the verity of a woman looking into the face of her own mortality, while still showing vitality and a desire to experience more. Carr is a revelation as the kind-hearted and down-to-earth Lennie, a character archetype that is often lumbered with actorly performances that don’t feel authentic. Instead, Carr’s performance feels so truthful that you feel you could ask him to mow your lawns after the show and he’d take the gig.
Nicholas Bell is always reliably excellent and his performance here as the restrained yet loving partner of a woman in the twilight of her life is very affecting. Stephen Phillips gets the difficult role of the fun-busting son who only arrives on the scene in the last half of the second act. It’s a part that could easily be thankless, but Fennessy’s script shines a light on all sides of the character and Phillips likewise gives a beautifully faceted performance brings so much important extra depth to the story.
Set and Costume Designs by Christina Smith are beautifully observed. John and Helen’s home with its floor to ceiling windows overlooking a backyard scattered with Ghost Gums, shows the signs of a life well lived. A new-looking lounge suite sits on a much-loved Persian rug and is mismatched with a dining setting that has seen many years of meals, while the kitchen appliances don’t look like they’re the same age as the kitchen. It all adds depth to the faithful rendition of a home and a reality that is truthful. Matt Scott’s lighting moves beautifully through the trees as scenes change, and I only wish that together Smith and Scott could have done something more interesting with the eternally black backdrop beyond the boundaries of the backyard.
J David Franzke has composed a superb score with a modern electronic sound that surprisingly suits the tone of the production perfectly. It’s subtle yet impactful.
I could keep piling accolades on this production and still feel I haven’t shared enough how truly touching this show is. A complete standing ovation on opening night is bound to be replicated throughout the season, but the true measure of how much an audience has been moved by a production is reflected in how quiet they are while still heaping applause on the performance. The closing moments of The Architect are some of the most emotionally affecting I’ve ever experienced in a theatre and it’s because everyone working on this production feels to have put their whole heart into the show. It’s simply beautiful.
Do not miss this production. Get a ticket now while you still can.