Dead Man's Cell Phone | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft - Sarah Sutherland and Lisa McCune. Cover - Lisa McCune and John Adam. Photos - Jeff Busby

“Would you like me to keep talking until they get here?” she kindly asks the dead man. To no response, she does exactly this – she talks to strangers, some who become loved ones, others who mistrust and despise her. Yet she keeps talking, clutching at her perceived responsibility to keep this dead man alive. While ever people call his cell phone, he remains.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is vivid through its accuracy and humour, which is couched in the magic realism of Sarah Ruhl’s writing. Her magical talent for mixing bizarre ideas with poignant and relevant social commentary presents life as a farce – a true farce. One woman’s obsession with a dead man’s cell phone reveals the plethora of current obsessions with technological communication and raises questions of what it is to be alive in a world of increasingly technical ways to communicate and ever widening gaps between people, where who we are to other people is mediated through waves in the ether.

Each character ranges from slightly larger than life to overtly theatrical. The contrived American accents sit strangely in the Melbourne atmosphere, and we wonder at the need for them. I would have enjoyed hearing this wonderful script in an Australian voice, however the heightened nature of the speech may have aided the actors in creating their kooky and excessive personas.

Lisa McCune is our sweet and sincere protagonist. She unaccountably feels a connection to this dead stranger, and in her attempts to maintain his spirit she creates stories for his loved ones and acquaintances – his last words, the apology letters he wrote on napkins, the call he made to his mother that didn’t get there. She is doing his unfinished business and her amusing inventions dig her deeper into his world, while we and she are left in the dark as to what the dead man had done with his life. McCune’s character Jean is the least remarkable character in the show. McCune captures the determination of her character and wonderfully portrays her obsession with connection and remembrance. Yet she becomes a wall-flower, the instrument through which the story plays out, passive in face of her desire to do what she thinks is right by the people who now call her instead of Gordon, the deceased. In down-playing this character, the peripheral characters are highlighted, which works well for the overall feel of the piece. Yet we still wanted to see more from this personality than the one-dimensional character poised constantly between fear, duty and obsession.

Sue Jones, as the grieving mother of the dead man, is wonderfully amusing. Her initial soliloquy at the funeral has more to say about the loss of sacred places than the loss of a child. The real loss to be mourned is the loss of silence. Always, a mobile phone ringing somewhere. Yet she calls her son every day.

Two actresses make their first appearance in an MTC production, though both have remarkable previous credentials. Emma Jackson plays the mistress of the deceased, a woman who knows how to walk into a room, in full knowledge of her beauty. Her character borders on over-done, yet she performs it so convincingly that she negotiates any sense of falsity to present us with a perfectly balanced expression of heightened life. And she really does know how to walk in those shoes.

Sarah Sutherland, a familiar face at Red Stitch, also debuts to MTC as the trophy wife of the cell phone’s man. She struggles to find the balance between a heightened character and believability, but has some outrageous lines which she delivers fantastically. She found her best moments when she fell into her character, losing the overtness of gesture and movement to pare them down into herself, embodying the repressed Hermia.

The women dominate this performance. Seeking to fulfil her own needs in the name of the deceased, Jean finds a soul-mate in his awkward brother Dwight, a spineless stationary-lover. Played by Daniel Frederiksen, Dwight is the hopelessly unfavoured son. His mother’s most important relationship, even in death, is her first born – her ‘only’ son, as the first just feels like the only sometimes. Yet Dwight is still a constant presence, a fixture of life, unnoticed and unloved. This is a moving understanding, yet there is much more to be made of this character, as he goes through no emotional development. He serves the purpose of falling in love with the dorky and cute Jean, to find a child-like ‘happily-ever’, and this relationship does make for some of the sweetest moments in the script. Even though their sudden connection makes little cerebral sense, the actors share such a palpable connection, and touch each other so sweetly, that you are swept into their moments of sweetness and left with their warmth. While both characters were clearly drawn, Dwight and their love was too peripheral, an addenda to the play that never fully blended.

John Adam, playing the dead man, is reborn for an excellent soliloquy, to tell the story of his last day, and fill in missing gaps. The freedom with which Ruhl brings dead characters to life, setting a scene in the parallel personal planets that comprise the ‘heaven’ of this world, makes the show spark with unpredictability and freshness. The founding strength of this piece is the script and is built upon with fantastic actors, good direction and excellently supportive and fitting production. It’s marvellous to see a performance in which nearly every aspect melds together into a delightful whole. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a perfect mix of humour and satirical commentary, which leaves you with a taste of freshness, a sweet citrus aftertaste as you leave the theatre to switch on your mobile and check how many missed calls and texts you have.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Sarah Ruhl

Director Peter Evans

Venue: MTC Theatre, Sumner
Dates: 26 June - 7 August 2010
Tickets: $42.55-$83.15 (Under 30s $30)
Bookings: MTC Box Office (03) 8688 0900 |

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