***.5 stars

By Darby Turnbull

In an age when the fight to gain meaningful and sustainable employment is becoming increasingly desperate; when there might well be forty over-qualified applicants for a cash in hand barista job, every opportunity does seem to feel like your life, or at the very least your self-worth is on the line. Why do you deserve livelihood they may as well say? What degradations and sacrifices will you make at the altar of a paycheck? Mish Wittrup’s The Hitmen takes the humiliating scenario of the group job interview and playfully skewers it to make the job in question a contract killer. Wittrup has a gift for using deliciously caustic humour to increase tension; the script is liberally peppered with snarky bon mots that draw laughs aplenty from the audience. The strengths of the play lie in the exploration of how a group of people who are each in their own way deluded, narcissistic or sociopathic justify and revel in their own moral worldviews as the stakes keep being raised. As repugnant as some them are, they make certain kind of moral sense. The motley final six contenders are all recognisable archetypes; the out of touch veteran (Michael Argus), a recent university graduate with no discernible skills (Will McDonald), a smug gamer (Raymond Martini), a coolly professional single parent (Sophia Petrdis) and a bogan couple who come as a team (Eidann Glover and Harry Borland). At the centre of the proceedings is Gwen (Cazz Bainbridge), the CEO of the company (it’s a family business) flanked by her silent and lethally competent subordinate (Tim Cronie)

Whilst they’re all amusingly drawn and expertly played, the characters are exactly as they appear with very little subversion of their types.

Less successful is the attempt to add some emotional depth to their characterisations that is consistent with the tone that’s been established; the revelations feel forced and there’s some ambiguity as to whether they’re being played for humour or pathos; they seldom feel like both.

Cazz Bainbridge gives what may end up being my favourite comedic performance of this year. Her Gwen is a gleefully sadistic ring master; perfectly secure in her contradictions and completely adept at using different parts of her personality to assert dominance. Imagine if Katherine Hepburn and Maria Bamford had an evil baby and you’d find Gwen. It was the kind of freshness and ingenuity I was longing for in the other characters to take the text to the next level. Tim Cronie is a fantastic and important secret weapon (I won’t reveal his main function); his performance is all physical and he shares a silent but very telling chemistry with Bainbridge.

Will McDonald gives a fantastically elevated performance as the naïve, idealist who’s a self-proclaimed loser but doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what to do about it. Wittrup has an ear for the entitlement that emerges from these ‘beta males’; he may lecture the others on morality but he’s as narrow minded as the rest of them. McDonald portrays a very successful balance of strong convictions mixed with utter obliviousness.

It’s only natural he’d want to align himself with the uber competent, contained single woman. Sophia Petrdis gives a very subtle, reactive performance in what ultimately turns out to be an underwritten character, which is a shame given how fascinating what we see of her is. She is playing the game and thinks she’s playing it well but completely underestimates that the rules are completely at the whims of those in power. She has a long speech that outlines her motivations but ultimately feels unnecessary, we learn facts about her but to my ear didn’t tell us too much about her essence. Petrdis peppers the speech with some unhinged bloodlust that’s carefully concealed behind a rational veneer. I wanted her to emerge as an equal player but it’s difficult when all the other characters are making so much noise.

Eidann Glover and Harry Borland throw themselves into the roles of two petty criminals who talk big but reveal some disturbing vulnerabilities. These are two people who know the game of life is rigged against them so are lashing out accordingly. There’s a lot to be said about class and how your background and presentation both provides and denies opportunities; it’s something I feel the text could have explored with more nuance. Glover very effectively coveys some deep sadness and regret behind the bravado. Borland imbues his characters brutishness with a charming sweetness in his moments with Glover.

Raymond Martini is a very funny and revealing adversary to them; there is a real danger and class bitterness in their interactions. He plays a gamer who hasn’t interacted much with life but used his games as a portal to it. He’s a snobby with an unearned high opinion of himself; Martini has a genius for giving some of his more difficult speeches a patter like drollery.

Michael Argus as the veteran hitmen finds a lot of dry humour in playing a character who is much older than he appears (he has had facial reconstruction). He nails the patronising nostalgia of a boomer who completely underestimates just how far his profession has progressed without him.

Blake Barnard, assisted by Rhys James has a knack for directing screwball comedy and has integrated Joey Lai’s fight choreography with panache. Though I wish that there were more explorations into the comedic nuances of the text. I found some of his choices distracting; namely to have important character interactions happen in spotlight. Harrie Hogan’s lighting design is at its best when its unobtrusive, for me at least the abrupt mood lighting took me out of the moment.

Thomas Mitten’s set is a witty and detailed evocation of a corporate space that serves the text brilliantly. His use of warm, colours and pristine white are a fabulous backdrop for the shifting moods and tension. The key is it could look like any other office space. This is Gwen’s kingdom and she’s clearly designed it to her taste and personality. Louise Parsons has dressed her in covetous hot pink pants suit that pops against the smart casual of the other characters.

The Hitmen is an intelligent and quotable comedy and very worthy of a revival after its first outing in 2015. To my mind it would make a fabulous web-series or sitcom; but audiences are sure to have a splendid time at its current iteration.

The Hitmen presented by Bakers Dozen is playing at Theatreworks until March 14th

 Text:3   Direction:3   Performances:4  Set/Costume: 4   Sound/Lighting: 3

Images: Justine McArthur