Claudia Clark and Aaron Orzech
Time with Mrs Thompson is a new riff on an old subject – a young man meets an older woman. Twenty-one-year-old James (Aaron Orzech) drops by a friend’s house one afternoon and gets chatting to his friend’s mother, Mrs Thompson (Claudia Clark). No big deal, just chitchat – well, at first. Mrs Thompson is a housewife, a widow, and seems eager just to have someone, anyone really, to talk to.
But as the conversation continues, with Mrs Thompson rustling up a glass – or three or four – of wine, they begin to find each other interesting. James feels that Mrs Thompson, whom he is soon urged to call Annie, is different from his parents; more honest, and certainly nicer to him. Annie feels that James is perceptive and emotionally intelligent. Wise beyond his years, in fact; a notion she persists with even when James makes quite an effort to disabuse her of it.
This production is effectively staged but there’s a rather uneasy blend of naturalism and theatricality at work. The actors use the venue door as the front door of Annie’s house and the lighting is simple, but at the same time recorded sound effects are used and there a formality to the actor’s movements. It would have been more effective to either use artifice throughout (with stage lights drawing the audience into a more intimate space) or else to maintain a consistently natural style.
Just as James and Annie’s conversation is at first stilted but becomes more compelling, so too does the play. For a while the pacing seems off, the dialogue delivered too quickly with few natural pauses allowed to develop. There’s some of that style of writing where characters constantly mishear or misunderstand (‘Pardon?’ ‘Did you mean…?’ ‘What?’), which is supposed to be suspenseful but comes across as mannered and unnecessary.
Luckily this trope is abandoned as the characters find more and more unusual things to talk about: alcohol and how it is abused by the young; Annie’s personal misfortune, including a curse that kills the males in her family; James’s girlfriends. Some delightfully unexpected moments emerge, like an amusing reference to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate or Annie’s confession that she once wanted to change her name.
The actors do a nice job of making James and Annie different enough for their connection to be surprising, but not so at odds that it feels forced. Clark plays Annie as a recognisable ‘type’, the almost aggressively upbeat middle-aged woman, grateful, always smiling – until finally her inner turmoil is allowed to emerge. Orzech’s performance is rather freewheeling but is most effective in the quieter, restrained moments.
But although there is enough of a twist on the material to spark interest, and some great little detours, the play doesn’t go quite far enough with what it is attempting (in fact it does seem a little unfinished, with the ending coming rather abruptly).
The Graduate used the idea of a young man seduced by an older woman as a sort of political protest but it didn’t have much empathy for the woman herself – she was predatory, selfish. Benjamin didn’t seriously entertain a future with Mrs Robinson and she comes to represent part of the problem, what he is running away from. In Time with Mrs Thompson, on the other hand, there is a concerted effort to deal with the older woman as a real person, as someone deserving of exploration and understanding.
And yet Annie does become a bit of a cliché. Though she has her eyes wide open in choosing to become involved with James, her confidence does not go unpunished. Without spoiling the ending, there seems to be some moral judgement involved, which takes the play back into more conventional territory.
It is also made clear that Annie admires James for his mind, for his wit and insights, while James’s infatuation with Annie is more in the realm of a sexual fantasy – she’s not ashamed of her body like the girls he knows, she’s not a blank canvas, she’s ‘experienced’. Perhaps unintentionally then, the play focuses on James and what he wants. Annie is enamoured of James because of who he is, while James just likes the ego boost of Annie’s interest in him, but doesn’t imagine they really see each other.
James even starts to feel a bit sorry for himself, believing that, at 21, he is not to be taken seriously as he doesn’t really know what he wants. In a way, then, the play is a plea for understanding between the generations, with each jealous of what the other has. James envies Annie’s comfortable stability (he can’t stop admiring her house, for instance, although to her it’s just her ‘prison’). Annie finds James’s youthful eccentricity fascinating, but doesn’t understand why he is so aghast at the idea of making decisions, like getting married, as she did at his age.
James thinks he can provide the answers to Annie’s problems – all she really needs is to let go of convention and get out into the world – while Annie doesn’t see that James, with all his freedom and charm and youth, really has any problems. This is one misunderstanding that seems right on the money.
La Mama presents
Time With Mrs.Thompson
by Gareth Ellis
(a rated PG production)
Directed by Peta Coy
Venue: La Mama, 205 Faraday St Carlton
Dates/Times: Nov 28 – Dec 16 Wed, Fri, Sun 6.30pm; Thurs & Sat 8.30pm
Duration: 60 minutes approx.
Bookings: 9347 6142