The Bitterling | Pentimento Productions and La Boite IndiePhoto - Brent Lammas

It’s 1974 in Brisbane and the flood is rising. It’s been raining for 21 days straight, the streets have become rivers and Ruby Cutler and her grandson Kevin are packing their most treasured possessions into tea chests, preparing for the worst. And into their home comes a different force of nature: Rose Cutler, the mother Kevin has never met and the daughter Ruby has all but given up for dead…and perhaps even secretly hoped she was.

Because Rose is hateful: loud, tawdry, seemingly heartless, utterly damaged. From the minute she steps on stage, with an ocker nasal drawl that makes you want to block your ears, you despise her. With such an unsympathetic protagonist, you initially wonder how The Bitterling, written and directed by Sven Swenson, is going to work.

But as the play goes on, as the layers are carefully peeled back, as the mysteries and motivations of each character are revealed, it doesn’t just work; it’s utterly incredible and one of the best plays I’ve seen in years.

It doesn’t do it justice to describe it as a “lounge room” drama, but it’s true that all of the action takes place in this one simple setting. The set isn’t fancy, but it’s obviously been carefully thought out. Little touches like the breezeway hanging from the ceiling, the kitschy knick-knacks and the gaudy matching lounge suite are more than enough to give us an authentic feeling of 1970’s Brisbane. The centrepiece of the set is a huge portrait of Cutty, the husband, father and grandfather who died in World War II and yet whose presence resonates through every part of the play and the characters. His portrait acts a powerful symbol for the story’s themes: loss, lineage, love and the secrets that lurk behind every family’s front door.

The lighting and sound are simple yet powerful too. The constant sound of rain rapping on a tin roof reminds us that disaster could be right around the corner, while the slightly washed out lighting adds gravity to the interactions. Lighting is also used to represent a switch from the 1974 living room to a future Kevin recounting the outcomes of these few hours with his mother, and this is very well done.

The simplicity of the stage is the perfect accompaniment to the complex emotions happening upon it. It’s obvious that this cast and their director have worked extremely hard together to create genuine history, affection and friction between mother and daughter, son and grandmother, mother and son. Swenson's decision to both write and direct was a risk, but one that has wholly paid off. The actors hit the mark with every line, the timing of the comedy and the tragedy is so perfect that it could only have been guided by the hand that wrote it.

Louise Brehmer’s Rose could have been a stereotype of the wanton woman, the heartless mother, but Brehmer fleshes her out so beautifully and shows us the vulnerability of a character constantly battling her own demons and failures, albeit with a hell of a lot of bravado. She’s over-the-top, but this skilled actor never makes it feels overplayed.

As 15-year-old Kevin, Dash Kruck captures the awkwardness of youth mixed with the growing burden of adulthood that’s being thrust upon his by the arrival of his mother. He's embarrassed and enthralled by her in equal measure and Kruck plays this perfectly, sometimes with nothing more than a flick of his eyes.

Ruby (played by Kaye Stevenson) is a product of a generation that has lost so much but knows they have no choice but to soldier on. Stevenson plays her part with the most poignant restraint, showing us a “just get on with it” attitude when you know that, underneath that steely will, there’s a woman who has lost so much and denied herself even more.

I really can’t say enough good things about this play, so I just advise you to go and see it before its run is over. It’s funny, moving, heartbreaking in places. It actually makes you feel something and in my opinion, that’s what the best live theatre should do.

The Bitterling is the first play of the La Boite Indie series, an initiative to encourage and support independent theatre. And if the quality of this play is anything to go by, then there is some exceptional independent theatre to look forward to this year.

Pentimento Productions and La Boite Indie presents
The Bitterling
by Sven Swenson

Director Sven Swenson

Venue: Roundhouse Theatre | Musk Ave, Kelvin Grove Urban Village New
Dates: 17 Mar – 4 Apr, 2010
Times: Tues & Wed 6:30pm, Thurs-Sat 7:30pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets: Previews $25 / $22 | Full Price $28 | Concession $25 30 years and under $20
Bookings: or 3007 8600

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