It’s a wild night and a rain-dampened audience have shuffled gratefully into La Mama Theatre. A single figure shambles onto stage, looking like he might have snuck inside for shelter. His eyes are deep pits of mistrust.
It’s a close space. Intimate. More intimate than is comfortable with those eyes on you. There is an energy in the room already that isn’t going to let up anytime in the next hour. This is going to be one hell of a show.
Appalling Behaviour, written and performed solo by Stephen House, is a powerful piece of theatre. House plays a homeless man, an itinerant Australian riddled with issues, who has wound up on the streets of Paris peddling drugs to the hookers, crooks and desperadoes of the street. We follow his life for a couple of nights (or maybe more, his sense of time is shaky), taking a trip through a seamy underworld that turns the conventional romantic image of Paris on its head.
House, a theatrical auteur-type who often writes, directs and performs his own work (though here he’s had direction from Justin McGuinness), lived rough in Paris when he was writing this piece and he presents a show full of authentic detail, both of street life and the mindset of those who live it. The language of the script is unpretentiously poetic, a surprisingly beautiful evocation of dark spaces and the fragments of fragile tenderness that survive in them.
With minimal set and a judiciously used soundtrack of French rap and street noise, the show hangs on House’s remarkable performance. In La Mama’s little theatre, you can see every nuance, from the inground fear in his posture to the hardness and hunger in his eyes.
The character is instantly, heart-breakingly recognisable. You’ve seen this guy before. You’ve seen him getting food out of a bin or dancing with himself on a street corner or shouting at someone on public transport. Only now you’re with him, in his head, with his failed dreams and turbulent emotions, with his confusions, delusions and dwindled hopes. There too, perhaps uncomfortably, you recognise him.
The Paris setting proves to be a powerful one. With the protagonist a long way from home and on the wrong side of the language barrier, his sense of isolation from society is heightened. The conflict between the image in your mind when you think “Paris” and the grim reality depicted on stage is also an effective device for representing a character whose reality has fallen so short of his dreams.
Appalling Behaviour is confronting but it is also profoundly humanising. Not just a show about despair or loss, it contains threads of romance and optimism and dark, sly humour.
House has toured it around much of Australia already, mostly to regional centres, and the Melbourne Fringe may be one of its last stops. Don't miss this singular and intense performance.
La Mama presents
by Stephen House
Directed by Justin McGuinness
Venue: La Mama Theatre, 205 Faraday Street Carlton
Dates: September 21 – October 2, 2011
Tickets: $25 – $15
Part of the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival