Ok, I admit it - one of the advantages of reviewing a play after opening night is that I get to cheat. Like the high school student who steals a glance at the ‘Cliff’ notes before writing their English paper, I fight the temptation to read all the reviews before seeing a play midway through the run. In the case of Halpern & Johnson, I managed to restrict myself to sneaking a peak at just one review - before the performance - but like a bulimic that’s been forced to work in a patisserie without sampling its delights, afterwards, I immediately binged on every skerrick that I could, guiltily picking over the crumbs…
So, am I simply going to regurgitate what everyone else has said about this play? Well, no, actually...but for those of you who haven’t read the other reviews, here’s a quick recap, to bring you up to speed. Bryce Hallett, from The Sydney Morning Herald panned it, quite viciously in my opinion, saying it was lacking in “dramatic scope” and labelling it as “lifeless”. Likewise, Diana Simmonds, from Stage Noise was equally unimpressed, suggesting that the play was “mediocre material” in comparison to Geoffrey Atherden’s ‘Mother and Son’ - of course such comparisons are going to be inevitable, seeing it’s the first time that Garry McDonald and Henri Szeps have been reunited since the much-loved ABC series left our screens in 1993. But is it not, in fact, a credit to both of them that people are so attached to those memorable characters, that they can’t let go enough to make room for two very different new ones? It’s a tragic conundrum, but one that I believe lies firmly in the audience’s court, it’s up to them to take the leap - this is not ‘Mother and Son Redux’!
What it is instead, is a rather simple, yet far from “mediocre” two-hander by British writer Lionel Goldstein which centres on Halpern (Henri Szeps) & Johnson (Garry McDonald), two elderly men, who loved the same woman. Sadly, dear old Flo has recently passed away, but unbeknownst to Halpern, his wife has had an on-going, life-long friendship with a former lover, the suave and sophisticated Johnson, who turns up to introduce himself for the first time on the day of Flo’s funeral as ‘Florence’s friend’. It’s a lovely premise, two old blokes who seemingly only have one thing in common - the woman they loved. As an aside, it’s a nice little coincidence (considering the casting) that the story’s original incarnation was as an 80’s telemovie, (written by Goldstein) featuring Jackie Gleason and Lawrence Olivier.
So, is it really “lifeless”? Well, no, not if the night I saw it and the audience reaction was anything to go by. The Ensemble was packed to the rafters with the prescribed demographic of over fifties who were - it has to be said - having the time of their lives. Largely this is because McDonald and Szeps are outrageously good at the subtle nuances of human behaviour and make their craft look easy. From the moment Johnson (Garry McDonald) arrives the magical verbal sparring begins, as the men square off against each other in a bid, it seems, to lay claim to Flo/Florence’s eternal love. What they discover in the process is, maybe neither of them really knew her at all, or at the very least, neither of them knew her completely. It’s a wonderful exploration into identity and poses several interesting questions, among them: would we be a different person if we’d chosen a different partner? And, do we have secret sides that our partners are excluded from? For instance, could our partner be harbouring a secret love for art or politics that we don’t know about, simply because we’ve never asked? The play also challenges our core beliefs surrounding relationships. In other words, what is cheating, exactly? Is it purely physical or could it be emotional - and if so, then which one is the bigger betrayal? This is the stuff of great human drama and sure it’s simple, but it’s truthful and real in a way that a lot of more complicated and contrived productions are not.
McDonald and Szeps are brilliant as they break through the wall of the audience’s ‘Mother and Son’ baggage to bring to life two very different and endearing characters. Physical gestures are performed with the master’s touch by McDonald, while Szeps must run a gamut of emotions - all merely seconds apart - and make them seem credible but also comical, which is no easy task and he does it with the greatest of ease. These two understand comic timing intrinsically, for them it’s like breathing and that is a joy to watch.
Ok, so the set, with its lone paper-mache tree could have been a little more considered, but aside from that, this is the kind of theatre that people want to pay to see. It’s not “edgy” or “ground-breaking”, but it’s solid and they can relate to it. When the lights came up everyone was happily chatting away and I really couldn’t help but feel that this play has been a success for The Ensemble, perhaps in spite of what the nay sayers might think.
Ensemble Theatre presents
Halpern & Johnson
by Lionel Goldstein
by arrangement with Hal Leonard Australia Pty Ltd on behalf of Carol Durbin Productions, Inc.
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: Previews from Thurs Nov 22, opening night Fri Nov 30, season to Sat Jan 19
Times: Tues – Fri 8.15pm, Sat 5pm & 8.30pm, Sun 5pm, Thurs 11am
Tickets: $37 - $61 (booking fees apply)
Bookings: 02 9929 0644 or www.ensemble.com.au