Andrew Bovell is one of Australia’s foremost writers. Among his successes, the debut production of his stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River was the recipient of five Helpmann Awards in 2013. His 1997 AWGIE Stage Award-winner Speaking in Tongues made its way to the big screen in 2001 as Lantana, a film that won a host of accolades here and overseas.
More recently, Bovell’s play Things I know to be true had its world premiere in 2016 in a production by The State Theatre Company of South Australia and UK-based company Frantic Assembly. That production was co-directed by Geordie Brookman, Artistic Director and co-CEO of The State Theatre Company of South Australia, and Frantic Assembly’s Artistic Director, Scott Graham. After its initial run in Adelaide, a UK production was staged. Last week, Things I know to be true had its Sydney premiere at Belvoir in a brand-new production directed by Neil Armfield.
Things I know to be true is the story of a working-class family, set in the coastal Adelaide suburb of Hallett Cove. Bob Price (Tony Martin) is a 63-year-old father, who retired from work after being retrenched from his job at a car factory. His wife, Fran (Helen Thomson), continues working as a nurse and remains heavily involved in her adult children’s lives. Bob and Fran continue to occupy the home that they built and in which they raised their four children.
The family is introduced to us by Rosie (Miranda Daughtry), the youngest, who presents us with a picture of a strong, loving, united family unit – one from whom she is trying to achieve some independence, but having a hard time of it. Now that the children are all adults, they’re all facing adult problems. Set over a year, each of Bob’s and Fran’s children shares with their parents – and the audience – a life situation in which they find themselves and that will require making tough choices, with consequences for the family.
One story is told for each season of the year. In Autumn, Pip (Anna Lise Phillips) grapples with a choice between her family and an alluring overseas job offer; in Winter, Mark’s (Tom Hobbs) struggle with his own identity leads him to a decision to begin a new life; in Spring, Ben (Matt Levett) goes too far in his pursuit of the high life; and in Summer, Rosie, the baby of the family who’s constantly told by her siblings that she needs to grow up, finally makes a decision about the direction of her life.
Bovell’s text is focused not so much on each child’s journey through adverse times, but on their parents’ response to each predicament. Because in this family, that is what matters most. How will their long-held expectations as to the paths their children will take inform their reactions? How will decisions impact the course of their own lives? And how will the events that transpire reflect the inter-generational tension?
Things I know to be true is a beautifully-written piece of theatre that is likely to remind us all of what it means to grow up in a family in Australia. There is something in the Price family’s experiences that speaks to us all, whether from the perspective of a parent or a child. Bovell’s characters are well drawn and their interactions with one another feel largely authentic. It’s superb text replete with moments that evoke pathos and that move, and others that are genuinely funny. Bovell incorporates monologue to great effect.
Leading the cast as Fran, Thomson is exceptional. She owns the role of the unyielding matriarch who, as the undisputed core of the family and despite her tough attitude, loves and cares about her children with a ferocity. But while she loves her children unconditionally, she doesn’t accept them unconditionally. She is capable of the most prosaic cruelty, delivered by Thomson without compromise. Hers is a three-dimensional character, who has her own secret that itself informs her interactions with her children’s dilemmas. Watching Thomson play this role is a joy.
Martin is also outstanding as Bob, depicting him in a way that rings true to the ears of many of us. His Bob is incredibly honest and decent and loves each of his children dearly but can fall short in providing support when it’s needed most. Martin succeeds in portraying an upright man who doesn’t always understand why his children have made particular decisions, but who will never love them any less. His is an immensely sympathetic character.
Each of the remaining actors delivers as the adult Price children. Daughtry’s Rosie believably transforms before us from naïve child to a war beaten young woman, determined to make her own way in the world. Phillips’s Pip is brave but fragile, as she decides between a career move and familial expectations. Hobbs convincingly portrays Mark as a man struggling with long-held and deep pain, while Levett’s Ben is plausibly a man who lives on the edge.
Most events in the piece transpire in the Price family backyard, which we quickly learn is a place of solace for both Bob and Fran, and it’s a constant. Set designer Stephen Curtis has created a simple but effective physical representation of that space. Tess Schofield’s costumes reflect each character appropriately, while Damien Cooper’s lighting choices are well layered.
Things I know to be true is a wonderful portrait of family life in Australia. It’s an eloquent examination of the unremitting nature and strength of family, its creation of the unavoidable generational divide and the damage we inflict on each other. It’s what coming of age means for both child and parent. And it’s highly recommended.
THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 21 July 2019
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444