Elizabeth Coleman is best known for her hit comedies from the 90s, It's My Party (And I'll Die If I Want To) and Secret Bridesmaids' Business. You might expect more of the same from her latest, Almost With You, however, as anyone au fait with Aussie new wave rock will suspect of a play taking its title from a song by The Church, it's more on the melancholy side.
Lisa (Fiona McLeod) is a familiar kind of protagonist, a perennially single middle aged journalist whose sassy personality and sparkling career are weighed down by a history of bad relationship choices and pressure from friends, like bestie Jenny (Helen Hopkins), to join in on the joys of motherhood. She's just got into a new romantic entanglement, sleeping with her accountant Tom (Raj Sidhu) who, to complicate things further, is also the subject of a magazine piece she is writing.
So far, so standard. However, Lisa has a secret. Living in her house is a mysterious young man, Dan (Luke O'Sullivan), who lolls in a filthy room full of vinyl records and 80s rock memorabilia. They are clearly very close but no one else knows he's there. She can't tell Tom about him, or vice versa, and the possibilities of her new relationship are under threat from her torn loyalty.
The suspense over Dan's identity is quite well-played, but – consider this a spoiler warning – it is revealed soon enough that Dan is a figment of Lisa's mind, her memory of a long dead brother stuck forever at the age he died. From romantic comedy, Almost With You shifts gears to a story about the long shadow of grief.
It's something of an uneasy mix. When playing close to its emotional core, especially in the scenes between Lisa and Dan, it is heartfelt and touching, with insights that have a ring of authenticity. However, Coleman hasn't been able to let go of rom com trappings, which don't mesh well. The setup of the age-separated twins sharing a house has an inherent poignant humour to it, which is not well served by the addition of broader material such as farting baby sound effects and sexual innuendoes over menu choices ("The sausage looks good!" "I might have the meatballs...").
It is also limited by being a one arc story. Once it's established who Dan is, it's a simple matter of waiting for Lisa to offload her baggage and hook up with Mr Right. This simplified plot is at odds with the more complex feelings expressed in the dialogue and the absence of sub-plots or story twists can make it all feel a bit laboured. McLeod and O'Sullivan do play well together though and the stage design is effective, the colour coordinated set and jaunty pull-down backdrops presenting the happy demeanour of a magazine lifestyle, in contrast to the dark chaos of Dan's room and all the suppressed emotion it symbolises.
Fans of Coleman's earlier work may go looking for something more light hearted, while those attracted by the premise will probably wish she'd taken it further. It gets an "almost" from me.
A Little Theatre Company Production
Almost With You
by Elizabeth Coleman
Directed by Kaarin Fairfax
Venue: La Mama Theatre | 205 Faraday Street Carlton
Dates: 4 – 22 July, 2012
Tickets: $25 – $15
Bookings: www.lamama.com.au | 03 9347 6142