Alienation | Perth Theatre CompanyPhoto – Richard Jefferson

There was an unusual message waiting for us on our seats at the Studio Underground on opening night of Perth Theatre Company's latest production, Alienation. Written on slips of paper was the following memo:

“Note from Lachlan Philpott
I would like to acknowledge the people who bravely shared their stories and the actors and creative artists who contributed to this work in good faith.

 However, the outcome of this production does not reflect my original, scripted or communicated intentions as the playwright.”

Fair enough. This is a devised work, a collaboration between actors, creatives and writer, but in the end, the labor gets divided up on paper, bylines are drawn in the sand, and credit is supposed to be given where credit is mostly due. This piece has a writer, and he has chosen to distance himself from the final product. Stranger things have happened, and in the end, the show must go on.

And so it did. Alienation opens strongly, with all four of the cast (Naomi Hanbury, Luke Hewitt, Natalie Holmwood & Robert Jago) giving a bit of introduction to the subject matter, to the characters they’re playing, and to “themselves” – they’re all playing stage versions of themselves, so each one floats in and out of a couple of different realities. They’re their own narrators; it’s not exactly a play within a play, but close. Not only are they floating in and out of characters, but also they are almost physically floating around the stage space. Drifting around the floor are black and white balloons, and director Melissa Cantwell has given the actors blocking which mimics the balloons; sometimes they collide or gather in groups, sometimes they drift in wide arcs around each other. It’s all very fluid and captivating.

At one point the actors each pick up a black balloon and move it around in front of them, and a curious thing happens: the strip of white lights at each side of the stage and a strip of blue lights at the bottom of the stage are reflected on the balloons’ surface, resembling the iconic and ubiquitous alien face. These accidental aliens smile at us, and as the actors manipulate the balloons, their funny faces morph and twist.

The material is mostly light-hearted; the abduction stories are told through monologues and vignettes. There are a couple of main storylines, but it’s sometimes difficult to piece them together since the narrative is all broken up, and told from different perspectives. The story between Natalie Holmwood and Robert Jago’s characters (two abductees who meet at a support group) is the strongest and most tangible thread to follow. They’re sweet, quirky, and fun, although perhaps the story reduces their mutual “abductee” status to something merely incidental, and has very little to do with understanding the alien abduction phenomenon itself.

The last few scenes portraying a couple’s disintegration because of an abduction experience came closer to exploring what an actual abductee might go through, but in the end it felt just like any other break-up story. Nevertheless, this is a very strong ensemble that has developed an interesting dynamic; each player has a different acting style and physicality, yet they blend very well and are obviously extremely in tune with one another as a result of the process.

For me the space was just too big and wide for this show, which would have been much better suited to a smaller venue, perhaps in the round, where we could really get up close and personal with the actors. Everything was played on one plane, the stage floor, but the movement (Sue Peacock) and blocking kept the threat of visual stagnation at bay, so a “set” in the traditional sense wasn’t sorely missed. The lighting (Benjamin Cisterne), the balloons, and an opaque backlit backdrop from designer Bruce McKinven, and AV design by Roly Skender created plenty of visual interest and space to play within. The sound design by Peter Dawson was often a nicely embedded soundtrack to the action that did not overpower or become a substitute for emotion and dramatic tension.

It’s difficult to know, as a casual observer, where exactly artistic visions diverged in this production, so in the end, the team seem ultimately to have moved through the challenge of alienating one of its main players.

Perth Theatre Company presents
A Devised Work
Written by Lachlan Philpott

Director Melissa Cantwell

Venue: Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 28 June – 13 July 2013
Times: Monday – Friday, 8.00pm | Saturday matinee 4.00pm and evening performance 8.30pm
Tickets: $59 – $28
Bookings: | 1300 795 012

A Co-production with Q Theatre Company

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