It’s a dark and stormy night as I rug up and head out reluctantly into the elements to see the first Sydney production of Steven Snell’s award-winning play Keeper at Downstairs Belvoir. It’s actually perfect weather, really, for a play that explores the deep, dark and dirty places within the human psyche. Or should I say the male psyche, because really this is an examination of a very masculine world of violence, loyalties and the bonds of brotherhood.
I’m not going to try and pretend for a moment that as a woman I really understand such things. Sure, we chicks have our own ‘sisterhood’ and sense of connection that’s facilitated by swapping relationship advice and bonding over great recipes – but violence, real and absolute doesn’t often make it’s way into our sphere. Ironically, though there was an incident in the news this week that has a strong resonance with the circumstances in Keeper that did involve female participants. In England, a fifteen-year-old girl, off her face on drugs and alcohol entered into a street fight, apparently to break it up. Armed with a knife, one thing led to another, and now she’s been convicted of the murder of an eighteen-year-old mother.
Keeper opens with a similar situation, as Kevin (Jonathon Dutton) and his best friend Neil (Paul-William Mawhinney) pay a late night visit to Russel (Christian Willis), Kevin’s older brother, who’s working in a factory. The two mates have just been involved in a punch up at a party that got way out of hand, and now someone is dead. Apparently the two are innocent of the crime, but to witnesses, and no doubt the police, it wont look that way, so they’ve fled. Russel’s no stranger to troubles with the law. He’s fresh out of jail after a nine-year stint, that in reality would have been much longer had the police discovered the full extent of his crimes. Kevin believes that Russel is their only hope to avoid capture. He knows people up North who can hide them until the heat is off. But Russ is keen to go straight, hence his job at the factory, and he’s not about to revive old shady connections without some very good reasons. And so they set out to convince Russ to help them, by whatever means they can, even if that means blackmailing him to get him on side. For, you see, this latest incident proves to be just the tip of the iceberg, as the two are in even deeper trouble over the disappearance of a young girl in sinister circumstances. And it’s this dark secret that proves to be the testing ground for their ties to each other. Through the course of this tense one act play the three will find their friendships challenged and their allegiances turning on a knife’s edge as they move towards an ugly and chilling truth, that can no longer be ignored.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, and a lot to take in over a very short span of time in this play. The actors have to hit the ground running, but still allow time for the audience to keep up. It’s tricky stuff, and it takes a while for them to hit their stride and find the right pitch, but once they do it’s gripping stuff. Christian Willis is strong and stoic as the older and wiser Russel, who’s dark past is etched into his face. He lends strong support to the action and helps to provide the audience with an emotional road map through which we interpret the events. Jonathon Dutton’s Kevin (the little brother with a chip on his shoulder) has a nice touch of honest naivety about it that lends a good dose of authenticity to the work. While Paul-William Mawhinney’s Neil is edgy and anxious, there’s an aura of the unknown about him. We’re not quite sure what he’s capable of which adds to the drama.
The playwright, Steven Snell, has a firm grasp of the working-class vernacular, no doubt gained from having worked in a factory himself. His colourful dialogue rings true and flows in a way that is truly engaging.
Director, Paul Barry’s attention to the subtleties and beats of the performance is well observed. While I did want the actors to slow down a little at the start so I could get my bearings, perhaps that would have stifled the piece’s realism. Either way I was with them completely by the mid point and the piece ramps up to a very satisfying climax. It’s also nice to see a director who likes to design his own sets, there’s a commitment there to getting his vision just right. The only thing that really didn’t mix well for me was the score (Nick Wales) which felt slightly too stylised for this gritty production.
By the end of the play I was on the edge of my seat, wanting more and fantasising about the phantom promise of a non-existent Act 2. Which really is a sign that this piece is worth the price of the ticket admission alone. More importantly though, it was a small house on the night I attended and having missed the opening night fanfare it was refreshing to see real punters leaving the theatre full of lively discussion and conjecture about this thought provoking piece. Keeper is sure to get you thinking about how far you’d be willing to go for a friend or family member when they’ve done the unthinkable.
Two Hour Traffic presents
by Steven Snell
Venue: Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 5 – 23 March
Times: Tues 7pm, Wed-Sat 8.15pm, Sunday 5.15pm
Saturday matinees 15 & 22 March 2.15pm
Tickets: $32, $25 concession, $27 group, preview $20, Pay What You Choose Tuesdays
Bookings: 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au