Left - Tim Overton and Nic English. Cover - Patrick Frost, Tim Overton and Nic English
Christmas. It’s that time of year again. For some, a time for families, celebration, and looking forward into the future of a new year. Or for others, just the day before Boxing Day, and with it, the glory of the Boxing Day Test. For brothers Patrick (Tim Overton) and David (Nic English) and the Christmas approaching the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death, this test is going to be tougher than most.
Michael Hill’s Boxing Day Test is an often dark and tense look at a particularly hurt family, with damage traipsing back fourteen years finally coming out. Around the holiday, Dave flirts and connects with Patrick’s crush and fellow law student Sophie (Renee Gentle). To try and save from eviction, Patrick asks their father, John (Patrick Frost), to buy the house: he doesn’t realise this will mean his father coming back uninvited into Dave’s life.
Floating around for at least eight years, in an earlier incarnation, entitled Poor Brother, Hill was shortlisted in the 2002 Jill Blewett Playwright’s Award, awarded at Adelaide Writers Week biennially. Despite these early accolades, Junglebean (a young company established and run by English, Overton and Gentle) is giving the script its world premiere production. It is a terrible sign as to the state of presentations of new works by South Australian writers that an accomplished piece of text has taken so long to reach the stage.
But through Junglebean, and under direction and dramaturgy by Duncan Graham, audiences are finally getting the chance to discover the script. While slightly uneven, where the piece tends to get unnecessarily bogged down in verbalisation rather than simply allowing the strength of character to come through, Boxing Day Test is a crafted portrait of four human and flawed characters, some more than most, and it is the final destination of each of these characters that truly creates the production.
Such characters cannot be brought to the stage without a strong cast. Here, English is the standout. While Dave is often unlikable in his actions, English strikes the balance between tortured soul, sexy bad boy, and a hint of brains, to create a thoroughly engaging character.
Frost is in fine form in the most narrowly written of the characters, yet this is a play that belongs to its young cast. Overton and Gentle truly come into their characters towards the last third of the play, as their characters are drawn in to the conflict. Gentle as Sophie in the last scene in particular left my heart beating. Overton does his best turn not as the straight-laced-student Patrick, but the drugged up Patrick. Where Gentle finds her best performance as Sophie finds great strength, Overton finds his best as Patrick falls apart.
In an interesting directorial choice by Graham there is minimal physical contact between all characters on stage. While violence and sexual relationships are spoken about and are the overall themes of the piece, when onstage they are never extended beyond a short grab or a skimming embrace. While emotions run raw in a play that is so much about physical mistreatment, Graham never expands these emotions physically. This interestingly serves to create a level of frustration in these restrictions placed, yet highlights the tensions which are already present in the text, and do not need to be literalised.
Even in the one scene of overt violence, Graham maximises on the skills designers Tammy Boden, Andrew Howard and Ben Flett, as a fight is created with a single actor, strobe lights, and frantic music. It is simultaneously a brutal exploration of violence and an exploration of the power of theatre to create images and ideas where there are none.
Playing around in the bleak, near squalor, of Boden’s simple, pared back and realistic set, Flett’s lighting design is tight, quickly changing between scenes in interplay between an abrupt change in Howard’s sound design. Within the frenetical world of the characters (particularly when under the influence of drugs or beer) these abrupt changes and high energy add to the tension of the construct.
As a counterpoint to these moments of high energy, Flett's lights in the moments of tension and near quiet highlight the menace and pain within the script and the characters. Within the already small forum of The Bakehouse this extreme tightening serves to constrict focus onto the best parts of English’s performance.
Howard’s sound, primarily used in the scene changeovers and for snippets of commentary from the actual Boxing Day Test on the television, but also as more of a sound track to scenes veering on montage, provides a palpable energy and helps build the humour and the tension within the script.
The piece, while a fully contained story about a single familial conflict, also satisfyingly feels as if it fits into a much larger framework: there is a clear trajectory of where the characters have come from to get to this point, and an ambiguous yet present trajectory that these characters and relationship continue off the page beyond the confines of Hill’s script.
Yet, while Hill, Graham and Junglebean are tackling tough subjects that take a risk, overall it almost veers too much on a side of caution. Deliberate ambiguity in the set up led me to concoct a much darker storyline in my head, ultimately incongruent with the conclusion of the piece. The production would benefit from being pushed just a bit further into darkness and over that edge it sits on. Nonetheless, Boxing Day Test is a strong, new Australian work, from a young Australian company, which deserve to be seen.
Boxing Day Test
by Michael Hill
Director Duncan Graham
Venue: Bakehouse Theatre | 255 Angas Street, Adelaide
Dates: 25 November – 11 December 2010
Tickets: Adult $22 / Concession $20 / Fringe Benefit $15