Red Stitch have done it again- Trevor is edgy, provocative and high quality theatre. Sometimes, if I’m being honest, I like to see a play intentionally knowing nothing about it just for the sheer thrill and I’m so glad Trevor was one of these choices this year. Imagine my companion and I sitting ‘blindly’ in anticipation as the lights go up and in through the back centred glass sliding door walks a young suited man, but not before he has picked up his dropped keys with his toes, discarded his jacket on the floor, thrown his shoe, and grabbed the remote to watch TV whilst perched on the coffee table – all the while as his mum addresses him as ‘bad Trevor’. Mmm no Aussie bogan Trevor here as first thought, maybe a messy adult still living with his mum? But wrong on both accounts as we soon realise Trevor is an actor, trying to revive his youthful success on a TV show with Morgan Fairchild. Oh and then it strikes you with a photo headshot, he is an 11 year old chimpanzee, adopted as a baby by his ‘mum’ Sandra. Genius! And it reminded me of the same revelatory surprise I had when I got to page 70 of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Beside Ourselves, which also deals with a similar issue of a primate family member, the connection of animals and humans, the idea of shared language, miscommunication and tragedy.
This play, written by Alaskan playwright and Juilliard alumni Nick Jones, is based on a true story I later discovered and full of charm, humour and pathos. It quickly establishes the home and familial set up of Trevor and Sandra, the angst of their neighbour and new mother Ashley (Eva Seymour) and the difficult situation copper Jim (Andrew Gilbert) and animal handler Jerry (Kevin Hofbauer) find themselves in when called to make a decision on Trevor’s future circumstances. In Act 2 things get a little more desperate so that by the final tense climax you feel agitated and bereft all at once for everyone involved.
And yet all the cleverness of the writing would mean nothing if it were not so well executed by the cast and production team. Rory Kelly completely embodies his anthropomorphic role of Trevor. From his curved stance, erratic animalistic manoeuvres, curled up toes and teeth that go from a smile to frighteningly bared in a few seconds, he exudes a strong and charismatic presence. He endears himself to us through his witty internal thought processes- delivered straight to us the audience in a sign of comrade collusion with perfect comic timing. He charms both us and his mum and keeps us all on our toes as he doggedly plans a TV comeback. What adds to the charm is Trevor’s flashbacks and hallucinatory conversations with both Ms Fairchild- the hilariously droll Angela Kennedy and his heroic mentor, the stage chimp Oliver played by a rollickingly kooky Dion Mills in a fun departure from his lead role in The River earlier this year. Mills’ matter of fact pronouncing of his marriage and children with a human in Florida as well as behavioural advice made for some very funny moments that was well appreciated by the audience.
But it was perhaps Andrea Swifte who shone the most in the role of Sandra, the mum. Clinging to her ‘ baby’ even more since the departure of her husband, her conflicts of love, tenderness and concern were all evident yet never overplayed. As matters get more intense in the second half, so did her portrayal and you could see Swifte fully immersed in the complex array of emotions. It was indeed a very admirable performance.
But even more than admiring these two lead performances separately was the combined chemistry – their bond was palpable and sensitively portrayed. You felt invested in the choices they both made and real relationship and love they shared. You marvelled at the timing of the spoken dialogue intercut with their shared sign language, the simple gestures and attempts at understanding. And because of this you felt as bereft, betrayed and heartbroken as them both by the tragic end. It’s a credit to both the duo and their director Denis Moore for working so hard on this so we understand and believe this unusual circumstance so well, and care so much in so short a time- no easy feat. Indeed Moore, who is well known to Red Stitch audiences from the award winning Harvest in 2006 among many others, has obviously once again really worked closely with all the cast about the individual motivations of the characters and the shared tone and vision. His close control of the movement and energy of this piece with his creative team allows clear and seamless shifts from reality to dreamlike sequences. The final quarter was purposefully built and showed his real awareness for creating tension at the perfect pace.
My only criticism perhaps was that whilst Andrew Gilbert and Eva Seymour were both engaging in their roles, they were overall, a little one level in their execution.
The overall set design by Adrienne Chisholm not only allowed us into the home of Sandra, complete with its ramshackle props but also a clever link to the outside yard which housed Trevor’s wheeled cage and yard. This allowed for some great surprise entrances and exits and playful Hollywood staging. What also really impressed was the thoughtful music intercutting by Dawn Holland and the effective lighting design by Daniel Anderson which added to the array of moods, especially the contrast between the sad reality of separation with some comic imagined filmic moments. Special mention to the backstage team Jacinta Anderson and Jasmine Persse whose tidying up and resetting each night will be quite time consuming!
This is a play to attend whilst suspending belief, it is brave, challenging and very well executed. It reminds us how little we know or appreciate the difficulty of raising a wild animal in a home, and that sometimes ignoring their needs to suit our own can be detrimental to everyone involved. A fantastic lighter yet thought provoking addition to the Red Stitch 2016 season.