Actor, director and playwright Will O’Mahony was a part of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s 2014-15 Emerging Writers Programs. Black comedy Tonsils + Tweezers is the third play he’s penned. First performed in Perth two years ago, the show is now making its Sydney debut at Kings Cross Theatre.
Tonsils + Tweezers centres on the friendship of two young men, 10 years after leaving school. The two have been together for a long time, and recall having been paired by a teacher at school because neither had other friends. The concept of binary stars is returned to at intervals throughout – “a system of two stars in which one star revolves around the other, or both revolve around a common centre”, to borrow directly from the text. As Tonsils (Travis Jeffery) tells us, binary stars are like best friends, “but sometimes that friendship starts to go … wonky. Wobbly. Sometimes things start to get a bit deepy-darky-creepy.” It’s a suggestion as to what’s to come.
We learn about the nature of the friendship through flashbacks to Tonsils’ and Tweezers’ teen days. When we first meet the pair, Lewis/Tweezers (Hoa Xuande) has just received an email invitation to their 10-year high school reunion. The pair’s subsequent high school reminiscing leads to discussion of the Fountain Boys, a group towards whom Tweezers continues to harbour deeply negative feelings. It’s revealed he was bullied by the group and that the bullying extended to physical violence.
But bullying isn’t the only source of Tweezers’ ongoing inner torment. It comes to light that the Fountain Boys played an integral role in a devastating car accident, which also occurred around 10 years ago. It was an event that profoundly impacted Tweezers’ life. He’s become a shadow of his former self, withdrawing from the world around him, and obsessive thoughts about death and pain gestate in his mind. He’s angry at the Fountain Boys, Tonsils, and the world at large. So, when talk turns to attending the reunion and coming face-to-face with painful reminders of the past, Tweezers asks his friend if he’s ever wanted to kill someone.
Hours before the reunion, Tweezers encounters Max (James Sweeny), one of the Fountain Boys who bullied him at school. It seems Max doesn’t remember him, so Tweezers attempts to jog his memory. In the course of the conversation, Max mentions his recent foray into acting and that he’s performing in a production of Macbeth. In an exchange with Tweezers about the play, Max says, “It’s like Shakespeare is suggesting that our capacity for the monstrous is correlated with our apathy, our embrace of nothing. And as Lady M collapses, Macbeth grows bigger and bigger in the nothing he projects.” As the show progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Macbeth’s plight mirrors the internal struggle decaying Tweezers.
Tonsils + Tweezers is a compelling, intelligently-written work that provokes substantial thought and reflection. The consequences of the alienation of young men, damaged and resenting the world for continuing to turn when tragedy strikes, are obvious. How to instead make a conscious choice to embrace life, rather than retreat from it altogether, is more problematic.
Director Michael Abercromby and the cast of four handle O’Mahony’s text with wonderful care. It’s a fast-paced piece with several opportunities to lose and confuse its audience, but Abercromby’s staging of the play ensures that does not occur. There are clear transitions between text as dialogue and text as monologue that is performed to the audience, and well-placed moments of silence to facilitate some unease. Production designer Patrick Howe has incorporated screen visuals into the set that marry successfully with the narrative throughout, though the traverse stage used in this production sometimes makes it difficult to focus on the players and fully appreciate the projections as a whole.
Each of the cast members is excellent. Jeffery’s Tonsils is gregarious, somewhat of an agitator, but a loyal friend to Tweezers. Tweezers, on the other hand, is withdrawn, rancorous and intensely wounded. Xuande is outstanding in his portrayal of the darkness that consumes his character. Some of his exchanges, particularly with Max, are genuinely chilling because of the vivid picture they paint of Tweezers’ disturbed state of mind.
Sweeny’s delivery of Max is also impressive, presenting a character who bears little resemblance to the schoolyard bully he once was, and a vehicle through which Tweezers must realise what he has become. Megan Wilding completes the cast as Beth, a composite rather than single character, and is convincing and funny in each guise she assumes.
Cleverly combining a contemporary story with the words of Shakespeare and the science of Sir Isaac Newtown, Tonsils + Tweezers confirms that Perth playwright O’Mahony has a promising writing career ahead.
TONSILS + TWEEZERS – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (2/244 – 248 William Street, Kings Cross)
Dates: Playing now until 27 January
Times: 7:30pm (Tue – Sat), 5:00pm (Sun)
Running time: 65 minutes (no interval)
Price: Concession $30, Adult $35