At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss based his routine around challenging his audience to examine their romantic relationships and if they found that they weren’t necessarily ‘the best version of themselves’ with their partner, to then break up with them. He took great pride in having succeeded at splitting up a number of couples, including the engaged and married. Now Joanna Murray-Smith’s Three Little Words demonstrates what the potential fall out of a just such a decision looks like, when one side of a married couple decides they want ‘more’ from their life and resolves to split an otherwise happy marriage in two.

Murray-Smith has chosen an archetype of couples that she knows and understands well – the white, middle-class liberal variety – and enriched the storytelling by making them co-dependent with another couple. Tess (Catherine McClements) and Curtis (Peter Houghton) have been together for 20 contented years, but in what seems like a mid-life crisis for Tess – who works in publishing – she decides that she’s in a rut and yearns to untie her marital bonds and look for fulfilment elsewhere. Curtis, a teacher, doesn’t want to end their marriage, but also loves Tess too much to hold her back from what she thinks will make her happy. The pair announce their decision to split at a dinner party for their wedding anniversary, with Bonnie (Katherine Tonkin), an art gallery operator, and Annie (Kate Atkinson), a masseuse. The break-up of the marriage will have an effect that ripples out across both relationships equally.

Bonnie and Annie do their utmost to convince the pair that they’re making a mistake, they remind them of all the things they share and the fact that they still have a healthy sex life, but Tess explains it’s just going through the motions. More importantly to Bonnie and Annie, Tess and Curtis provide a balance to their relationship, they not only make better company as a pair – they refuse to spend time with them as any form of trio – but holidays booked together as two couples are also more affordable and fun. However, Tess won’t be convinced not to move on, and the examination of the relationship breakdown exposes cracks in Bonnie and Annie’s otherwise stable union.

Murray-Smith has always done ‘funny’ well, and here she uses many forms of humour: from dark, vicious barbs, to set-ups and punch lines, local references and even good old-fashioned physical comedy. The use of Canberra as a put down is a particularly brilliant. But straight forward comedy isn’t all that’s on offer here. Murray-Smith slyly skewers her subjects and their 21st century attitudes. Tess marvels over the fact that women’s liberation hasn’t earned her the right to a larger share of the marital wealth in a divorce, when she was the major bread winner – equality isn’t enough for her. When Curtis moves on from the marriage more quickly than she expected, she explains she wanted the door to left open for her return to the relationship if she chose to do so. She’s a pretty self-absorbed character.

Of course the usual vindictiveness found in relationships gone wrong comes to fore and soon every character has their moment of moral repugnance and petty behaviours.

Performances across the board are strong, with Houghton particularly well balanced. Director Sarah Goodes has ensured to have her quartet deliver the more serious elements of the script with due reverence and sensitivity to provide a certain amount of truth and recognition in the characters, while keeping a keen focus on the laughs, even engaging a fight choreographer (Nigel Poulton) for the denouement.

Michael Hankin’s costumes hit the nail on the head for the artsy quartet, and while his revolving set design is unspectacular, it does a neat job of transitioning scenes and capturing locations.

Searches for deep meaning in Murray-Smith’s script would be misguided; she’s explored other elements of this subject over 20 years ago with Honour. This time around, the marriage breakdown on display is purely for the purpose of comedy and as a source of good fun, Three Little Words delivers assuredly. It doesn’t offer any neat outcomes, but neither does it leave any real doubt on what’s likely to happen next, and it may just make couples driven to action by Daniel Sloss’ stand-up routine, think twice about how essential it is to depart their relationships for greener pastures.

 

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