Red Stitch’s 2017 season has started with a bang thanks to a riveting new piece written and directed by beloved Aussie Aidan Fennessy called The Way Things Work. Inspired by troubling world events around him, Fennessy has cleverly crafted a 90 minute two hander which weaves three integrated tales of partnerships going awry. Fennessy has carefully chosen two talented actors with different physicalities and energies to embody his three duo couplings that is gripping from start to finish.
Well experienced film and TV actor, NIDA graduate and new Red Stitch ensemble member Joe Petruzzi was last seen in this space in Jurassica (2015) and The Village Bike (2016). Opening the play as Minister Barlow, Petruzzi is commanding and enigmatic. His initial rehearsed imaginary greetings create a sense of ease and comedy about the man, but as this 30 minute tale unravels we see how crafty he can be. His constant movement and bombastic diatribe about needing support from his political aide Dench for an upcoming Royal Commission hearing into his work on the tunnel creates a wonderful sense of drama, urgency and pacing. Multi award winning actor, writer and director Peter Houghton makes his debut on the Red Stitch stage in three equally diverse roles. In the first role, he is deliberately understated as Dench, the political aide stuck between a political rock and a hard place. Intelligent dialogue complete with political clichés sprinkled throughout confirm our understanding of corruption and our new awareness of dubious ‘alternative’ facts.
When the scene comes after the blackout we are surprisingly greeted not to the political setting but inside the office of Aussie Greek concreter Tony and his younger brother Nick. Petruzzi is comically resplendent and sweaty in his fluoro plastic suit trying to lose weight before his wedding to wife number two and bantering with Nick. Houghton is equally hilarious, proudly declaring ‘mum loves me more’ and then delivering some underhanded news. This switch was a clever stroke of structural genius by Fennessy, which messes with our minds not just in regard to place and character but also its timing and link to the previous story. This brotherly exchange allowed for smart provincial humour, eliciting huge guffaws from the audience many times especially when we learnt that there is such as a thing as normal concrete versus special concrete. My favourite line of the show and delivered with great aplomb by Petruzzi was the effect his liquorice allsorts tasting ouzo was having to his face.
In a complete upended change of pace, the third act sees Petruzzi beautifully embody despondent prison guard Warren. His physical manifestation seemed to age him before our eyes, and really showed the range of his abilities. Similarly, Houghton was completely engaging as the well realised criminal Terry snorting cocaine and talking to Warren whilst waiting for his sentence on killing an inmate. His blindsiding of his collaborator was well executed. The change of pace and volume and tone in this exchange really added another layer of depth to the story which takes a while before we see how it is connected to the first two, but really well realised in both writing and delivery. It is the chemistry between these two men that really lets us into the psyche of these spotlight scenarios and is reminiscent of male partnerships like Robbins and Freeman in Shawshank Redemption. Their commitment to all three roles really takes us into diverse and believable worlds that work surprisingly in similar ways.
Sometimes there is trepidation about a writer choosing to direct their own work, but the outcome here highlights it as an asset as Fennessy’s clear vision for how the rhythm, pacing and characterisations needed to be staged made this a successful production. He has steered his cast perfectly to slowly reveal their motives whilst allowing them to showcase their various strengths to deliver well rounded performances in all three parts. In addition, his simple stark white set with its scattered paint edgings and ingeniously reconfigured table, two chairs and area name plates serve as symbolic and sterile backdrops to the more important characters and intertwined stories. The mood evoking sound design by Russell Goldsmith made the transitions seem not long at all, and instead maintained the edgy beat to link all three tales. The lighting design by Matt Scott was fitting and simplified, with just a changing hue of colour from the back filing cabinet area to signify the change in location. Kudos also to the operator who was spot on with all cues – especially needed in the final moment of the play or that could have got messy!
This must see show ticks so many boxes – quintessentially Australian in its setting and premise, global in its scope, current and engaging in its subject matter and most of all, brilliantly executed by its cast and team. A rewarding piece of contemporary Aussie theatre.