The Grenade | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft - Belinda Bromilow and Garry McDonald. Cover - Eloise Mignon and Garry McDonald. Photos - Tracey Schramm

It's far from explosive. Instead, it's utterly conventional. That brings good with bad. And, perhaps, at certain moments, a little bit of ugly. Such as when playwright, Tony McNamara (The Secret Life Of Us & arguably the worst film Australian film ever made, in The Rage In Placid Lake) harks back to the Clinton era and Lewinsky affair, for an irrelevant cheap shot.

Overall, though, The Grenade is a thoroughly enjoyable play, even if it seems like it might have been written with television in mind, rather than an MTC/STC coproduction. And that's not just 'cause Garry McDonald's in it, I hasten to add. It's just that the characters seem to be attended by the contrivance and leaning towards cartooned renditions I more readily associate with that medium. It's all a little bit gimmicky. Commercial. Populist. Middle-of-the-road. A bit Rafters.

Belinda Bromilow isn't just lanky of stature, in a Rhonda Burchmore ranga kinda way, but stands tall in the role of Sally McTavish, the young second wife of Garry McDonald. Well, his character, 'Buzz'. But an ex-nun, moderately (or modestly) successful as a romance novelist, now, er, collaborating in erotic fiction, with a macho ex-commando, right under the nose of her paranoid hubby? It's a bit of a stretch. Still, given her statuesqueness in the comedy-drama stakes, Bromilow doesn't seem to be straining, even if the author is tugging a little too hard at the hem of credibility. I mean, sure, we get it: counterpoint; irony; all that. But it's a bit sledgehammer and pea, isn't it? It means all the more credit must go to BB. She's so good, I can even forgive her for being a part of The Rage in Placid Lake, an abominable Australian film, penned by McNamara, whom I can't forgive. In fact, I'm put in mind of something SMH film critic Paul Byrnes got stuck into that work about: to paraphrase, McNamara seems as mad as hell about a lot of things, but struggles to find the right pitch. There's something slightly scatterbrained about this not-quite-cohesive script, which might benefit from editing and workshopping and a second look. Again, that Bromilow, and company, have made this look as smooth as it does is tribute to their surpassing craft.

Despite some unevenness, lulls, flatspots and clumsiness, the first half-hour or so's writing is almost scintillating. After that, I had a pervasive sense of a tapering-off. And don't be mistaken, don't be misled, this isn't a trivial farce, or satire for it's own sake: au contraire, McNamara, to give him his due, seems to have a sincere concern with the pernicious paranoia promulgated (apologies) by the media and political class, the dirty deals done dirt cheap, and sympathy for victims. That's you and I, babe.

Speaking of performance, I'd have to single out Mitchell Butel as my man o' the match. He plays Whitman, unscrupulous offsider to Busby, a brutal, crash-or-crash-through lobbyist. His bluntness and bankruptcy has a strange and worrying charm which, again, is most probably due to his skill and charisma.

Runner-up, and a close one, would be Gig Clarke, as Wheat, who's best approximated as the lovechild of Kramer and Robbie The Robot. He's lost his parents, is dislocated (even moreso than your average adolescent), awkward and, in truth, seems to harbour the kind of socially-inept genius typically pathologised as Asperger's. He and his cartoon character, too, are oddly, almost inexplicably, compelling.

Mm. But then, I can hardly overlook Eloise Mignon, as Lola McTavish, who finds a nerdish camaraderie with the cracked Wheat. She's the archetypal, love-to-hate school perfect (sic) debating champion, who can recite speeches by American presidents. Why?! But she delivers it with such charm, one barely questions the absurdities.

Bert Labonte is Randy Savage, the handsome threat to Busby's sense of fragile equilibrium, such as it is. He's deftly cast, for reasons of physicality, but also insofar as his considerable capacity to effect a blithe confidence as an impossible, or at least implausible, Ken-doll.

Last doesn't mean least: what's not to love about the iconic Garry McDonald? Well, his diction, and projection, at times ('though, in fairness, that wasn't something restricted to him and may well be a facet of flawed acoustics in the opera house drama theatre), but nothing else is lacking. He has such personality as an actor, even if he's one of those actors that's always himself, as much as he's any character he plays.

Director Peter Evans has pulled everyone and everything together about as tightly as is possible, Alexis George's costumes are consistent with and very much complementary to the characterisations, Matt Scott's lighting is slickly professional and Richard Robert's revolving set is a veritable McMansion-in-the-round.

Oh, and David Franzke's composition is crisp, original, innovative, exciting, bold andeven edgy. And bloody loud!


Sydney Theatre Company presents a Melbourne Theatre Company production
The Grenade
by Tony McNamara

Director Peter Evans

Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 9 November - 12 December, 2010
Duration: 2 Hours, including interval
Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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