Left – Kate Atkinson, Katherine Tonkin, Catherine McClements. Cover – Catherine McClements, Peter Houghton. Photos – Jeff Busby.
Upon the audience's entry, the vast stage in The Sumner is already richly detailed and fully lit. The cast sit in the dining room of a well furnished home. Husband and wife, Curtis (Peter Houghton) and Tess (Catherine McClements), and their close friends Annie (Kate Atkinson) and Bonnie (Katherine Tonkin) – also partners – are engaged in apparently convivial conversation. It appears we are about to embark on a very mainstream, commercial play aimed at a very mainstream audience. The pop music being played would also indicate that this is so.
And so it is. And when that big shiny stage starts spinning, the whole thing feels very much like one of those cheesy TV comedy-dramas so popular with nice urban families. This feeling of watching an affable TV show never quite left thanks to that spinning stage and the loud pop music interludes... it was like a commercial break, time to get up and get a cup of Milo or something. I found these interludes truly distracting and annoying and could not see what they achieved at all. I mean, yeah, it's kind of impressive, but over and over again... just annoying.
The story is about the repercussions when Tess and Curtis announce to their good friends that their relationship is over. After 20 years, Tess wants to find out what it's like to be her own person. She wants to fulfil her yearnings. In the beginning, Tess and Curtis still seem kind of in love and certainly full of respect for each other, it's just that Tess want find out what else there is and Curtis agrees that if that's what she wants, so be it. Annie and Bonnie are shell-shocked. What follows is indeed an affable comedy-drama examining the repercussions of the breakdown of a relationship that is seemingly rock solid, the ripple effect that breakdown has, and what individuals want and expect from their relationship. The original civility between Tess and Curtis deteriorates, and the relationship between all four – all quite different in nature – is tested.
For the first 30 minutes or so, I just wasn't getting it. The humour seemed a little contrived and over acted and I just didn't get why it was getting such a good response from the audience. The lines or the physical humour – though impeccably timed and delivered – just didn't seem deserving of the LOLs. Perhaps I was alone in the audience, but I just wasn't feeling it.
However there was a point (not sure exactly when) when the humour gave way to a little more drama, and I started to feel it. I think what happened is that at a certain point, Tess, Curtis, Annie and Bonnie felt less like characters and more like real people. There was something happening on stage that started to feel very real. A rawness seeps in and you start to feel for Tess and Curtis the way we feel when our real life friends break up. When the good ones – the relationships you've thought were solid – go through hard times you want them to get through it because if they can't make it work, what does anything mean? Maybe there really isn't anything in this idea of being a couple.
There is still plenty of humour throughout all this, and either it got better or something was happening to me, because I had crossed over to the dark side and was, on occasion, laughing out loud. There was quite a nice balance between drama and humour. There's a unique bitterness when a relationship devolves from love to hate, and if you can portray that unique, personal viciousness so accurately and manage to get some laughs in there, you're doing something right. The cashed-up, mainstream audience Joanna Murray-Smith's latest play is aimed at is probably going to love it, and with good reason.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Three Little Words
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director Sarah Goodes
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 22 April – 27 May 2017
Bookings: mtc.com.au | (03) 8688 0800