In a present-day regional British town creeping through slow modernisation and scant employment opportunities, we are introduced to a family in a state of slow-burning crisis. Martin is staring down the barrel of late middle age, and despite a lifetime of experience as a local milkman, he is confronted with equipment which is falling apart and a customer base that is drying up so fast he can’t afford replacement gear. His children, both young adults living at home, are facing their own tribulations, with head-in-the-clouds son Billy angsting over getting into a London art college. Meanwhile, surly daughter Sophie’s burgeoning career as a martial arts instructor seems to be a less than successful means of anger management.
Trying to hold it all together is warm-hearted but overwhelmed matriarch Kath, herself working a full-time job as a school dinner lady, who tries her best to help the family make the right choices in the difficult decisions which face them. She also gently encourages fledgling plumber Pete in his ham-fisted attempts to woo the far from receptive Sophie. There’s actually not much more to this play than that, at least on face value. The stories of these five characters intersect as they come and go from the family kitchen, across many scenes set over the course of several months.
In a theatre and art scene irrevocably influenced by the passage of postmodernism, one can be forgiven for entering a play with a title like Kitchen Sink expecting some kind of unexpected narrative twist, dramatic gimmick, political statement or subversion of expected form, genre or subject matter. Sometimes, however… you get exactly what it says on the tin.
Well, perhaps that is not entirely fair. In contrast to the genre of “Kitchen Sink Realism” from which this play derives both its title and approach, this can perhaps be seen as a light subversion, or at the very least an update to the mode of drama that flourished on the British stage and screen in the 1950s and ‘60s. This is not an “angry young man” play tackling controversial social issues affecting the disaffected working class so much as a very low-key look at the same subject matter in a post-millennial context. Some of the concerns may be the same, such as the difficulties of finding employment and happiness when you feel trapped by your social circumstances, but the approach is different.
For example, Billy being homosexual would likely have been the issue of a kitchen sink play from the classic era, or at any rate the defining point of his character. Yet here he is completely accepted by his family, even in small-town regional Britain, and his sexuality is matter-of-factly presented as a complete non-issue. His salt-of-the-earth father does not entirely relate to his son’s dispositional delicacy, much less his budding art career or obsession with Dolly Parton, yet his sexual orientation is never raised as any kind of problem.
Similarly, Sophie’s pursuit of a career in teaching jiu-jitsu is never criticised in and of itself as being “unfeminine” any more than Billy’s desire to go to art college might be viewed as “sissy”. The only question in either case for parents Martin and Kath is whether their respective ambitions are practical or achievable, and then in turn whether their kids may be harming their own emotional wellbeing by giving up too easily on their dreams, once things don’t go smoothly. Indeed, the same applies in reverse for Martin, whose family worries may be making himself (and by extension the rest of them) miserable by persisting with his lifelong career as a milkman in a supermarket economy, where such a business is no longer remotely profitable. The march of progress is inexorable, and Martin must decide whether giving up is indeed the best course of action, if pride and fear of change are preventing him from making the responsible choice.
The other notable difference here to traditional kitchen sink dramas, of course, is that while this play could be said to still fall within the broader net of Social Realism, it is also to a lesser or greater extent a comedy. Or at any rate a dramedy, if we must use that awful portmanteau. After all, while the title is an unironic descriptor of the drama, it is also a kind of gentle play on words, in that Kath and Peter are forever wrangling over the dodgy plumbing of the literal kitchen sink that is situated centre-stage.
By and large the comedy is low key, and goes hand in hand with the slice-of-life awkward banter and faintly tragic emotional crises of this family who are just trying to scrape by. Depending very much on the extent to which one relates personally to the type of mundane existential angst represented by facing a change of career late in life or, as a young person, choosing one in the first place with uncertain prospects, the balance of comedy and heartache may seem weighted one way or another. Nothing is ever too soul-rendingly terrible to make the moments of levity fall flat, yet nor does the humour ever reach a pitch of absurd hilarity through any contrived implausibilites of plot or character.
Whatever one might say about the play being potentially underwhelming, depending on one’s dramatic tastes, the acting in this production is excellent. Expat UK actors Huw Higginson and Hannah Waterman as Martin and Kath deliver exceptionally strong, understated performances, imbuing these decidedly un-flashy roles with a warm genuineness of personality and a real sense pathos, which elevates them beyond the at times intentionally pedestrian nature of the material. Kudos should go to dialect coach Amy Hume and the three young Australian actors, who all do an excellent job of matching the thick regional British accents of their elder castmates, giving a pervasive authenticity to the desired realism of the piece.
Ben Hall successfully navigates a fine line between making his character effeminate without being a camp caricature, much as Contessa Treffone similarly pulls off Sophie’s almost belligerently antisocial attitude without ever becoming unsympathetic. Duncan Ragg is also very funny as the cringeworthy Pete, who is the vehicle for much of the show’s humour in his gormless attempts at romance and revelations of his ailing grandmother’s proclivity for cannabis, yet manages to have his character retain a certain endearingly fragile dignity.
While not a remarkable play, it is an engrossing one. A worthy modernisation of a genre, it examines the lives of the struggling contemporary working class with compassion and a welcome sense of humour which never belittles them. This show is gentle little rollercoaster, brought to life by a truly excellent cast.
Ensemble Theatre presents
by Tom Wells
Director Shane Bosher
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: 14 Oct - 18 Nov 2017