By Adam Rafferty
Kicking off this year’s Midsumma Festival offering from Theatre Works is the “first full-length play” from a new local writer Chris Edwards. A graduate of NIDA’s MFA (Writing for Performance) course, Edwards’ This Bitter Earth was first staged at Sydney’s New Theatre in July 2019. However, it’s not a traditional full-length play, in that it’s made up of a series of short vignettes, linked by a common theme of modern relationships and bookended by the tale of one young man’s first (disastrous) sexual experience.
As a one-acter coming in at 65 minutes, it barely qualifies as “full-length”, but it’s certainly the ‘right’ length for this material. Amusing, au courant, facile and lightly flirtatious, This Bitter Earth is a pleasant diversion, best suited to a twenty-something audience contemporary with its performers.
Led by Matthew Predny as the aforementioned young man, played with violent neuroses, who finds himself in a Grindr tryst with a secret gay bigot. Predny’s monologue performance style has the flavour of a first attempt at a comedy club open mic night. Full of good intentions and mildly amusing anecdotes but ultimately too highly strung to land the comedic punches. You want to like him more than either the material or the performance will allow.
Predny’s storytelling gives way to a two-hander scene between a young gay couple (Michael Cameron and Alexander Stylianou) in the midst of marriage proposal. A scene welcome in its normality in this day and age, but this proposal doesn’t go quite as planned. Stylianou as a drunken ‘proposee’ inverts the potentially romantic moment into a petty domestic dispute with the deflated, yet sweetly forgiving ‘proposor’ Cameron. Edward’s script is slightly preposterous, and story threads with great opportunity are dropped as quickly as they are set out, yet the pair give the couple enough plausible life that as a campy spin on a marriage proposition it works.
The remainder of the cast – Elle Mickel, Sasha Simon and Ariadne Sgouros – are introduced by The Weather Girls’ tune It’s Raining Men, while bouncing in unflattering 80’s inspired leotards (designed by Grace Deacon). The ironic nature of the lyrics becomes apparent as Mickel and Simon discuss their latest girlfriends before Sgouros shocks the pair with the revelation that she is dating a man, which is then trumped by ridiculousness of his name. This scene is where Edwards’ comedy takes flight, and excellent timing from the trio – particularly Sgouros – brings genuine laughs, as her new beau’s name becomes the butt of a running line of jokes with pleasing momentum.
A short scene set in a club follows, with four of the cast all speaking over one another. It’s amusing purely for the OTT club kid outfits, as the dialogue, without the assistance of an audio mix, becomes almost entirely undecipherable. Atmospheric lighting design by Phoebe Pilcher helps paint the clubby picture.
The set design (also by Deacon) seems simple at first, made up of a slightly elevated white playing space in front of curtains and a couple of chairs, but the reveal of a hidden ‘room’ behind the curtain is a thorough disappointment. With walls bare, besides the rough application of primer and a single hanging light globe, it unnecessarily sets a party conversation scene in something that looks like a squat that is much too far away from the audience. Director Riley Spadaro, also a recent graduate of NIDA – MFA (Directing) – loses the intimacy established in this production’s earlier scenes by setting this scene so far upstage he loses communion with his audience. A situation that seems in opposition to the “Sangria Safe Space” confidentiality of the story. He does however re-join his cast with the audience for the ‘communal’ final scene that extends Predny’s opening story of ‘first date gone wrong’. It feels like a circular stroke for structural purposes rather than anything necessary to rounding out the tale but happily creates a feeling of connection with the characters.
This Bitter Earth is an admirable early effort for a bunch of young and queer artists on the road to bigger things. There’s plenty of room for growth and improvement, but this is still a fun and funny, if somewhat slight, examination of modern queer relationships.
Performances: 3.5 Stars, Sets: 3 Stars, Costumes: 4 Stars, Lighting: 4 Stars, Sound: 3.5 Stars, Direction: 3 Stars, Script: 3 Stars