Strange one, this one. It suffers from what I'm going to think of in the future as The Cuckoo Effect. You're dying to know what The Cuckoo Effect is, aren't you. Well, I really enjoyed this play as it was unfolding whilst ignoring a few of the questions and quibbles The Little Voice was whispering in my ear. After all, it's an intriguing story, creatively told by a small cast of good actors. The intriguing bits are intriguing, the dramatic bits are dramatic and the funny bits are (mostly) funny, so shut-up, quibbly little voice and let me enjoy this thing.
And I did enjoy it. But the more distance there was between me being there seeing the play, and being away and looking back and thinking about the play, the more The Little Voice seemed to have a few valid quibbles. That's The Cuckoo Effect.
The story follows the lives of Mel (Natalie Carr) and Leo (Matthew Molony) and what happens to their lives when their apparently long-lost son J (Samuel Russo in a twitchy and unsettlingly quirky performance) turns up 17 years or so after he mysteriously vanished. The young adult claims to have been injured in a bicycle accident and in need of help. Mel is keen to help, but Leo is suspicious of this intruder with whom something is clearly not right. What follows is a story of love (and the dying of), desire, yearning, memory, regret, rejection and loyalty. All the ingredients are in place for some really good theatre, and it mostly delivers.
J's unexpected arrival opens up, for the married couple, new possibilities and a whole can of worms. If he is who he says he is, what happened? Where has he been? What went wrong? Who is to blame for his disappearance?
If he is not who he claims to be, who is he? What does he want? And how does he know how to manipulate them so easily?
The play is billed as a black comedy, and that's not an inaccurate description. There's a lot of psychological drama going on, as you'd expect with such a scenario, and there are plenty of laughs to be had. Indeed, this kind of story could be played as a straight and powerful drama. But the writer (Jane Miller) has chosen to infuse this quite serious story with humour.
And this is in part the source of some of The Little Voice's whispered quibbles. While the different and quite separate moods mostly work in isolation, they kind of jar at times. There isn't really a smooth transition between them, mainly because the drama and psychological tension is done so well, and some of the humour (not all) borders on farcical or the absurd, so much so that it clashes and jangles. The human frailty stuff is genuinely moving and natural. Some of the humour, while funny, just seems out of place or unnecessary. The character Dan (David Kambouris) – possibly the cop who delivered the news of the son's disappearance all those years ago and who is now a friend of Mel and Leo's – felt at times like a character from an awful sitcom like Hey Dad. Well played, but a frequently annoying character with frequently annoying “funny” lines.
There's also the suspension of disbelief problem. With a really successful story, you just agree to its unspoken terms and conditions and accept whatever unlikely romance or tragedy or fantasy the story suggests. You just let yourself get drawn in. With slightly less successful stories, you find yourself saying yeah but... but why don't they... but if this really happened...
I guess what's stayed with me the most are the naturalistic parts of the play dealing with emotional struggle. So well done. This is a story about the hopes of a missing child returning and the challenges that go with that, but it's also a story about fading love and rejection.
The flashback scenes are effective in giving clues as to what Mel and Leo's life was like prior to their son's disappearance, as well as the circumstances leading up to the event itself. They may have gotten on with their lives and eventually accepted that their son simply vanished, but we see that even in the most ordinary of families, all is not necessarily what it seems and blame and self-recrimination are simply burdens that must be endured if we are to get on with life.
There is real drama and tension as the three main characters become locked in a psychological battle for what they want or need out of this situation, and there is an air of creepiness or menace as well. The mystery of what has actually taken place remains right up to the quite poignant closing scene.
15 Minutes From Anywhere presents
by Jane Miller
Director Alice Bishop
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: 8 – 26 July 2015
Tickets: $36 – $28
Bookings: fortyfivedownstairs.com | 03 9662 9966