Left – Michael Ross, Adriano Cappelletta and Henri Szeps. Cover – Henri Szeps and Sharon Flanagan. Photos – Steve Lunam
I suspect this may be the first time I've seen a New Zealand play on an Australian stage. It's a novel irony to hear actors we know to be Australian making disparaging remarks about Australia in a New Zealand accent! In all, Roger Hall's play was a joy to see.
Four Flat Whites in Italy is the story of Adrian and Alison, retired librarians who have decided to take a holiday in Italy with a couple they've known for years. Shortly before leaving, one of their friends breaks his ankle, and the couple are unable to join them. Stepping into the breach are Harry, the retired plumber, and his wife Judy, who insist on flying business class. The differences between the two couples' budgets and politics, however, are nothing compared to the differences they encounter in their attitudes to life as they visit Venice, Rome and Tuscany.
I couldn't help but feel throughout that I was watching one of those strangely saccharine post-war British comedies from the likes of Joe Orton or Noel Coward. I don't know if it's the slightly prissy sound of the New Zealand accent, or the rather rigid structure of the play, but it just doesn't have an edge. It feels dated; so much so that the characters having mobile phones seemed anachronistic, despite the play having been written in 2007 and evidently set in 2010. It just doesn't feel like it belongs in this century.
By the end of the second act, the play was starting to drag; the four flat whites seemed to have lived up to their description in the title and lumbering from one witticism to the next was taking its toll. In the second act, though, the characters came to life, as they began to unpack their baggage and get to the more interesting elements of their characters. Despite some clumsy transitions between narrating and acting, the central character, Adrian (played by Michael Ross) is charming and relatable. His transition is palpable and in every way believable, and I found myself cheering him on as he grew stronger and more independent.
Playing Adrian's wife Alison, Sharon Flanagan does a fine job of the rather stereotypical slightly left-of-centre but precise librarian. She has to walk a fine line to present such a rigid character, while remaining human, and she achieves this with admirable grace. A supporting cast led by veteran actor of stage and screen Henri Szeps makes for a great ensemble.
Hall's play attempts to delve into the relatively heady territory of grief, forgiveness and recovery, and admirably attempts to do this with comedy. It fails. Not at being funny, because the laughs come thick and fast; but it doesn't quite bring the grieving process into sharp enough focus for the heaviness of that theme to be fully developed. It doesn't fail as a comedy, though.
Four Flat Whites in Italy delivers the wit you'd expect of a play with that title, and Ensemble's cast delivers that wit with aplomb. It's just a shame that Hall's higher ambitions for the play don't manage to break the boundaries of the genre he chose. This is nonetheless a funny play, and a very enjoyable night at the theatre. A pity it's not on the Queen's schedule while she's in Canberra, because she'd probably love it.
FOUR FLAT WHITES IN ITALY
by Roger Hall
Directed by Sandra Bates
Venue: The Street Theatre, Canberra
Dates: 25 – 28 Oct at 7.30pm, Sat 29 Oct, 2pm & 7.30pm
Tickets: $29 – $49
Bookings: 6247 1223 | www.thestreet.org.au