The Grenade | Melbourne Theatre CompanyThe MTC’s new offering, Tony McNamara’s The Grenade, goes like this:

Someone leaves a hand grenade in the lounge of corrupt and ruthless politico spin doctor, Busby. The family rushes out the door in a panic (even though the pin is still in the grenade). We know we’re never going to find out who put it there – the grenade is a device to wind a plot round and a metaphor for the volatility of life. So, if not the story, what is meant to matter here – the characters?

Here they are:  Busby (McDonald), arch manipulator at work but at home a loving, needy over-protective partner, on his second marriage.  Cynical sidekick wisecracking best buddy (Mitch Butel).  Hard talking say-it-like-it-is ex-wife (Genevieve Picot).  Quirky teenage daughter trying to find herself, on the verge of ‘going bad’ (Eloise Mignon).  Quirky teenager’s even quirkier boyfriend with odd name (WAAPA grad Gig Clarke).  Hunky ex-special forces porn star turned author of erotica (Jolyon James).  Sexually awakening ex-nun (yes, really) much younger current wife now writing romance novels (WAAPA grad Belinda Bromilow).  Finally, in a weird, absurdist and surreal vein, there’s a six month old baby who speaks Spanish, whistles Wagner and is growing fangs, a touch that sits oddly with the rest of the set-up.

After his new wife threatens to leave and teenage daughter comes close to losing her virginity to the porn star, Busby’s ‘journey’ brings him to a new self-awareness where he realizes how paranoia is harming his family life. He mends his evil ways in the political arena and decides to stop taking bribes, since creating such and negativity means those big bad birds come home to roost. He learns to trust his loved ones, relax, and it all ends happily. But – what’s the point?

The Grenade doesn’t quite satisfy the satire genre because it’s too over the top to seriously and effectively undercut its themes (of our society’s culture of fear and hysteria). With a play that offers nothing to believe in it’s inconsistent to expect anyone to be concerned with the loving ‘touchy-feely’ moments of the second half. How can we accept Sally’s love for her husband when she talks about her baby in terms of the anti-Christ? The three women are respectively Madonna, virgin and whore needing protection from themselves (the play, at least, deconstructs that notion), the porn star is only there to provide some action with the surveillance theme, and the bit that’s easiest to understand is Busby’s fear that Sally might be more attracted physically to the ridiculous Randy Savage than himself. Ok, so they’re all meant to be fun and laughs but The Grenade isn’t quite one thing or the other, and the general effect is of watching live TV.

The play is funny but it’s all smart-arse stuff, one-liners; the sort of thing we expect from situation comedy or film; it somehow seems as though it doesn’t actually belong on stage, especially the short glimpses of the characters “off set”. To be fair, the audience found it a hoot; an articulate character like Busby can offer moments of delight and his threatening speech over the phone is a chunk of nice writing. Wheat is a lot of fun and Whitman got a classic line (the chickens gag) to deliver – his reason for being there, it seems. The actors, particularly Garry McDonald and the wonderful Genevieve Picot (who plays the most believable character), and the music by David Franzke, are inspired, but The Grenade is long and at times slow moving.

The problem with an over the top, unbelievable set-up in a play is that when a layer of emotional ‘reality’ is superimposed over the ludicrous it can come across as manipulative. The one thing you want in theatre is to be engaged, not distanced in the way you are while watching a screen. That’s the whole point of it. There are other places to go for edgy, alternative theatre, so if our flagship theatre company must produce conventional plays, let them be truthful and well-scripted, let them have impressive, engaging narratives and characters who make us truly curious.


Melbourne Theatre Company presents
The Grenade
by Tony McNamara

Director Peter Evans

Venue: the Arts Centre, Playhouse
Dates: 10 April - 15 May 2010
Tickets: $42.55 - $83.15, Under 30's - $30
Bookings: MTC Box Office (03) 8688 0800 or mtc.com.au | the Arts Centre 1300 182 183 or theartscentre.com.au