Left - Toby Schmitz. Photo - Danielle Lyons
The B Sharp season has started with a bang, not a whimper with the premiere of Brendan Cowell’s new play, Ruben Guthrie. For those who haven’t ventured into the delights of the downstairs theatre at Belvoir St Theatre, this is a fantastic entrée into an impressive year of programming ahead.
Ruben Guthrie is a 29 year old advertising creative at the height of his career when he adopts the position of renegade at a high end party and jumps in to a standard adult swimming pool… which turns out to be a children’s wading bath. “Lucky to be alive” he begins a journey, into the world he previously knew, but this time without alcohol.
We meet Ruben Guthrie (Toby Schmitz) in a sharing circle inside a church hall… post incident/accident - arm in a sling, band aid on his head… sharing about how he found himself in this situation. Within a short time his most immediate relationships begin to disintegrate, first with his beautiful Czech fiancé Zoya (Samantha Reed), and secondly his boss Ray (Christopher Stollery). Before too long his separated parents, (Lex Marinos and Tracey Mann) separately struggle with the change within their son due to his abstinence and developing relationship with his sponsor, Virginia (Megan Drury). A complicated surprise visit from long time friend Damian (Torquil Neilson) adds old temptations into Ruben’s new life.
Toby Schmitz is an energetic, charming child in his performance of Ruben Guthrie, and leaves the stage only once in the whole performance for a quick costume change (which is astounding considering the performance is 1 hour 40 minutes, no-interval marathon). Schmitz is superbly bold and at times idiotically frustrating: a delight to watch as Guthrie whether in his addresses to the audience or in his struggle to connect with those who love him. He finds the rhythm in Cowell’s writing and is at ease in the natural theatricality of the character of Ruben.
Encircling Ruben on the inexorable merry go round of people who enable and influence him is an impressive cast. Megan Drury provides a robust fragility in her portrayal of Virginia: who is at times “unhinged” and “discombobulated” and also empowered in her focus on the 12 step path. Samantha Reed presents Zoya as a figure of admirable strength and conviction beyond the model stereotype. Christopher Stollery delivers a strong and direct performance as Ray and Torquil Neilson is perfect as the frustrated foil to Ruben’s search for sobriety. Lex Marinos and Tracy Mann are excellent as the estranged parents; Marinos delving into the world of the father son interactions with effortlessness and Tracy Mann is excellent as Ruben’s subtly hypocritical mother.
Cowell has managed to create an accessible and funny contemporary tragedy, which doesn’t present an easy answer to the questions of excess, success and social drinking. Questions are raised, answers are suggested: and subverted, as the father struggling with pancreatic cancer endorses a drink blaming his work stresses, (not his casual drinking) and Ray suggests that Ruben’s creativity is at its best with the aide of Vodka. And Ruben’s Mum tells him that one glass of wine won’t be bad for him. It’s clear that drinking alcohol permeates many aspects of our lives: our family, personal and work relationships rely on it as a social lubricant, as a celebratory symbol, as a means to relate or as Ruben states: “we get smashed so we can see through the cracks into the light of our ideas.” And perhaps if we all “steered clear of alcohol stress and cheese we could all live until 100”… but we don’t. Why don’t we? Cowell raises these questions, not in a didactic or community service announcement tone, but as an observation into how much this socially acceptable/legal drug can be abused, taken for granted... and how it can shape our actions and therefore and inevitably, our lives.
Wayne Blair, newly appointed Company B’s Associate Artist, directs an exciting ensemble cast of performers in this contemporary tragi-comedy by Brendan Cowell which deals with one of Australia’s favourite pastimes: drinking. Blair’s production moves through place and relationships seamlessly utilizing the minimal yet functional set (designed by Jacob Nash) and a fun rock’n’roll soundtrack /delicate sound design by Steve Francis to great effect. Luiz Pampolha’s lighting is glamorous and suitably cold effectively illuminating the sometimes stark and lonely world of Ruben. Whilst honouring the fragility in the moments, Blair compliments Cowell’s easy sense of comedy without losing the balance or the story.
This play speaks directly and honestly to the audience about loneliness, excess, temptation, fragility, limitations and expectations within all relationships. And there certainly aren’t easy answers in this play primarily because the answers lie within each of us.
Murri fulla films in association with B Sharp presents
by Brendan Cowell
Venue: Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Preview: Thursday 17th April
Season: Friday 18th April – Sunday 11th May
Times: Tues 7pm, Wed-Sat 8.15pm, Sun 5.15pm
Tickets: $29/$23 (Preview $20, Cheap Tues Pay-what-you-can, min. $10)
Bookings: 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au