Taking a stab at Australian apathy and self-deprecation is Brendan Cowell’s bold new black comedy, Self-Esteem. This is The Castle at its lowest where the uber optimism of the Kerrigans come to be replaced by a VB-swigging father, a pot-smoking son, a daughter too busy seducing her Aboriginal tutor to worry about books, while Mum juggles between an Oriental stir-fry and rushing to the side of her incontinent mother-in-law. Times are low, and in comes Chad to lift the morale.
As part of a government initiative, young, white, grinning Chads are delivered to all Australian homes to boost productivity, increase profit margins and to put smiles back on the faces of its citizens. Chad nicely pockets a twenty percent share of the family income and everyone is happy. This bold new play as part of Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf2Loud division is Orwellian without the darkness. Chad after all is the sunny motivator we all recognise and love and above all, need. He is Anthony Robbins, Dr. Phil and Jim Carey all rolled into one.
Personifying Chad is the effervescent Toby Schmitz who sports a flawless Californian drawl and bounds across the stage with the energy of a superhero. Decked in a black and white tracksuit with an extraordinarily large black gun as a prop, hair parted and slickly combed to one side in manner of Clark Kent, Schmitz effortlessly falls into character with his toothy grin, flexible eye contortions and elastic facial expressions. If he is grating to our nerves, it is only because we recognise this personality so well.
Equally impressive is Heather Mitchell who plays Pam, the wife and mother who under the influence of Chad’s infective enthusiasm, swaps her apron for leggings and a sweatband for a 24 hour regime of Chad pills and Chad-aerobics. Mitchell carefully portrays Pam’s decline from adrenaline rush to doughnut-hallucinating to great effect clearly doing justice to Cowell’s colourful portrait.
Framing this disturbed picture of contemporary suburban Australia is some equally satirical set and costume design by Alice Babidge. The stage is bordered in a white picket fence and furniture and props are kept to the bare essentials; a couple of chairs and the token Aussie esky. A large portrait of Chad looms above a la Big Brother with cut-out clouds providing screens for projecting Chad statements which flicker throughout the play in a didactic fashion as if we too are in Chad training. Eventually, the whole family is singing the Chad ‘Self-Esteem’ song (music penned by composer, Basil Hogios) in their black and white Chad exercise gear complete with Chad logo.
Self Esteem cleverly explores the potential ruin of a country by sheer lack of… yes, self-esteem. There is also of course the implication that Australia is under threat of becoming a poor imitation of America. Cowell’s play makes for some great entertainment and though with ambitious political statements and witty dialogue, Self Esteem seems to falter at the end leaving us hanging and curiously wondering what could have been.
Sydney Theatre Company Wharf2loud presents
By Brendan Cowell
Venue: Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company
Season: 25 April – 12 May 2007
Times: Mondays @ 7:00pm; Tuesday to Saturday @ 8:15pm
Matinees: Saturdays @ 2:15pm
Tickets: $34/$21 concession, students $15
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 / sydneytheatre.com.au