Zany yet thought provoking, Red Stitch’s latest offering The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno explores the meeting of two identically named neighbouring couples who are anything but typical of their ordinary namesake. Under the stillness of night, we meet long term residents Jennifer and Bob who are intentionally stilted, struggling to make eye contact and carry a fluid discussion indicating something troubling in their lives. Into this tense scenario appear new arrivals the younger Joneses, Pony and John, who are more naturalistic and affectionate- if a little imposing on their new acquaintances. As the story evolves we soon learn from Jennifer that she is caring for Bob, who is suffering from a degenerative condition affecting his capacity to put words to ideas. Before too long, it will also become more clear the real reasons behind John’s arrival in town – and how they will all grow to depend on each other in unusual ways by the end.
Will Eno’s inventive and demanding plays whilst difficult to at first contemplate and absorb as both performance artist and observer certainly allow much imaginative interpretation for any creative team, and director Julian Meyrick and his cast have boldly taken on this play with artistic verve and inventiveness. Beautiful honouring Eno’s prosaic nature of language there is a great establishment of rhythm between each couple and the whole quartet. What makes it continue to work though as we move through this 100 minute no interval play is not just their commitment to pace, but also the inclusion of clever disjointed cracks, brittle intercuts and savouring the pondering silences that allow observational reflection. The characters involve themselves fully in ‘throwing words at each other’, hurling and blurting their feelings and revelations in a myriad of affecting scenes and exchanges. The result is a great blend of comedy and drama for the audience – a realistic slice of life.
Guest actor Neil Pigot, brilliantly renders Bob with understated physical restraint and dry witty vigour. This mix of sensitivity, complexity and hilarity endears the audience to him and shows him to be a great craftsman of Eno’s intentions and cadence. Ensemble actor Sarah Sutherland shines as his frustrated wife Jennifer. Shifting effortlessly from aggravation to concern, Sutherland makes full use of her exasperated moments as a contrast to her more compelling moments of thoughtful stillness. Together both actors present a formidable and captivating relationship that really takes full advantage of fleshing out the layers of their circumstance.
Guest actor John Hoskin (whose talents were enjoyably viewed in last year’s Uncle Vanya) manages to traverse the line of ambiguous wise cracking barb thrower with a deeper melancholic sense of pain and concern later in the show. Founding ensemble member Ella Caldwell presented a perplexing portrayal of his wife Pony. Whilst there was a wonderful freedom of movement in her physicality displaying her frenetic eagerness and anxieties, she seemed at times too in control and forceful which was incongruous with how fragile Pony is described by her husband John and the lines sometimes afforded to her. The shared story Caldwell has with Pigot near the end of the play also unfortunately lost its impact with a strange disconnect to their rash liaison. What was effectively conveyed though was how both Hoskin and Caldwell comfortably showed their characters living and enjoying each other in the simple moments but struggling to broker more difficult topics of depth and mortality so that it provides the need for outside intervention to help them navigate this experience.
Thankfully, Gregory Clarke has not overcomplicated the set design for this scene shifting play. Simple screen slides at the back and easily movable garden chairs and boxes allow the cast to take control of their own moving environments with ease in between the breaks. Ian Moorhead’s evocative soundscape uses realistic night time noises to add to the eerie and contemplative nature of the story. Bronwyn Pringle’s inspired lighting design added to this visceral experience with a range of coloured speckled night time shadowings to enhance the uncertainty of the situation in both home environments whilst quick lighting shot sparks made for an effective firework display. Kudos also to the unnamed lighting operator, whose impeccable timing in the intruder sensor light scene with John and Bob really added to the humour and tension of this gathering. The final exchange between the foursome saw all these components come together well and saw it move from fantastic hilarity at Bob’s drug overuse to a bittersweet and hopeful open ended future.
The Realistic Joneses could be overlooked as a simple slice of ordinary life but its real impact is in its shrewd exploration of some of life’s bigger questions such as true connection, effective communication, resilience and human’s response to illness and mortality. It also addresses the difference between what people say and people mean. The sublimely effortless execution of this challenging work in both movement and emotion shows that Red Stitch were right to choose and present this contemporary piece and are most deserving of an appreciative and reflective audience.