Left – Contessa Treffone. Cover – Contessa Treffone. Photos – Prudence Upton
In the basement of one of Sydney’s most exclusive restaurants is an office more closely resembling a call centre, lined with at least a score of telephones that never seem to stop ringing. Descending into this cacophonous pit of stress is our beleaguered protagonist, Sam, who would clearly rather be anywhere else. A struggling actress making ends meet by managing the highly in-demand reservations that are perennially booked out three months in advance, Sam is about to have a very bad day.
Under normal circumstances she would have other staff manning these phones too, but her flaky immediate superior Bob hasn’t turned up for work, the lunch service is overbooked, and via intercoms she must also juggle the increasingly shrill demands from the bustling kitchen and the haughty maître d'. Worse still is the dreaded red phone, reserved for contact with the petulant narcissistic manchild who is the restaurant’s wealthy celebrity chef. Chef rules his petty fiefdom less like a screaming Gordon Ramsay, and more in the mould of a Nero or Caligula, lounging on his throne of inflated authority from a private office, issuing orders and demands through Sam herself.
Harried and overworked in the extreme, she is yelled and sniped at by entitled customers and fellow staff alike, as she struggles to find spare moments in this unrelenting shift to ring her acting agent, sweating on the outcome of a recent audition. Sam must also field incoming personal calls, weathering veiled insults from her brother and a frenemy actress up for the same part, as well as trying to explain to her sweet but needy father that she may not be able to get time off for Christmas. All the while, the reservation phones and restaurant intercoms never stop blaring…
In terms of status, Sam is clearly the lowest person on this teetering totem pole. Yet, by being forced today to act as the nerve centre of the whole chaotic enterprise, she may just for once be in a position to effectively wield the most power, and perhaps even turn some things to her own advantage.
That is what the narrative of Fully Committed is about. What makes it a particularly entertaining and noteworthy play, however, is that it is written for the one actor portraying Sam to also embody over thirty additional characters she is speaking to over the phones as well. Instantly snapping back and forth between wholly different voices and physicalities, the lone actor plays both sides of the constant stream of phone conversations with different people.
It is, perhaps, the most ambitious one-hander you’re likely to see, and a huge challenge for anyone tackling the role[s]. Performed as a 90-minute one-act play, Fully Committed has been described as a theatrical marathon to perform, yet I would liken it more to a decathalon, given the intimidating and varied range of dramatic skills required of its sole actor.
In this, its third Sydney production in almost two decades, director Kate Champion and dramaturg Jane Fitzgerald have taken this crowd-pleasing play and given it something of a timely facelift. Both previous stagings, by Denise Roberts for the Ensemble in 2002/3 and Alexander Butt for a Sydney Fringe and Old Fitz production in 2013/14, adhered to Becky Mode’s original setting in a New York restaurant. This required their immensely versatile actors, Jamie Oxenbould and Nick Curnow respectively, to additionally tackle a raft of different American accents when crafting their dozens of hilarious vocal characterisations.
Champion’s new production, however, localises the play by setting it in Sydney’s own affluent restaurant scene, which requires changing the celebrity name-drops and, in doing so, has inserted some local theatrical meta-jokes as well. Certain elements have also been notably updated such as acknowledging the ubiquity of television cooking shows such as MasterChef, as well as substituting the celebrity chef’s cuisine from global fusion to molecular gastronomy, all to considerable comedic effect. Some other elements that have not aged well were also excised, such as a few of the (many) incidental characters containing some awkward racial stereotypes.
In some respects though, what feels like the more notable contemporisation is the casting of Contessa Treffone as Sam. While it should be noted that Mode’s playscript does not dictate Sam’s gender, and as truly wonderful as Oxenbould and Curnow both previously were, in 2019 the figure of the struggling, put-upon white male “nice guy” stewing in his own feelings of browbeaten mediocrity carries with it a different cultural conversation than it did in previous decades.
Such a figure may perhaps currently foster a less sympathetic default reception than would have been previously assumed, and upon which the play in large part relies. Although certainly possible to still navigate successfully with a male actor, there is something of a circuit breaker to those potential issues in representing this downtrodden character instead as female and, in another nonchalant textual tweak, a queer one at that.
This is something of a natural fit, concerned as the play is with depicting Sam as being blown from pillar to post amidst an extremely macho and class-conscious world in which she has no place. There is something fresh and different in approaching this text via a feminine perspective on how to deal with rude, arrogant, entitled and overbearing people, many of whom are also women, albeit generally of a very different social station. This sense of tonal difference is often achieved less via particularly gendered alterations to the script itself than by the nuances of Treffone’s performance, especially in her reactions to the various other characters she plays.
Not to mention the optics of portraying a woman on the receiving end of all this emotionally taxing labour and borderline abuse in a high-pressure workplace simply to make ends meet. Sam being a woman may not fundamentally change the meaning of the play, but it certainly makes you view some of its personal dynamics in a different light.
Treffone certainly rises to the challenge of this material, bringing both the hilarity and poignancy that the central role of Sam requires, giving her key characterisation a warm, weary, and likable spin that is all her own. As for the other thirty plus roles she has to flit between, they are all highly distinct and many are extremely funny. These encompass a few different accents amidst a wide range of different vocal inflections, as well as individualised physical tics to help set each role instantly apart from not only Sam, but also each other.
What small critique one might have of this all-encompassing performance should, one suspects, be addressed to Champion’s direction. Compared to the prior productions, the pace and dramatic trajectory of this extremely dense piece felt noticeably less intense than in the frenetic predecessor productions, with a lot of the humour feeling ever so slightly defanged as a result of being less taut in its presentation. Further, by having more time for both Sam as a character and us the audience to all catch our breaths instead of being propelled along, the quieter, more dramatic moments where the action does slow down have less resulting impact.
Perhaps this was an intentional choice to shift the focus slightly towards giving Treffone more of a chance to emote and register Sam’s reactions, rather than risk them getting lost in the maelstrom of often quite broad and chiefly comedic other characters she is constantly dipping in and out of. If so, that is a good impulse, but unfortunately these extra beats of nonverbal character work come somewhat to the detriment of the more overtly scripted moments of emotional import.
With a far more elaborate set than previous stagings (shared, one assumes, with Ensemble’s concurrent production of Baby Doll), the choice here to festoon the performance space with innumerable functioning prop telephones that ring and light up on cue may perhaps not be strictly realistic, but the effect certainly ups the ante. Treffone has to literally race around the set answering one phone after another, adding yet a further layer to this supremely demanding role. Although one imagines it to be a technical nightmare for actor and stage technicians alike, this does succeed in giving the piece a welcome additional dimension to its blocking in what can be a slightly static piece on larger stages.
One hopes that as the show settles into its run these elements may tighten up, although preferably not too much to the detriment of some of the the subtler moments of performance that Treffone has incorporated into an overall highly successful performance. Although not without some teething issues, Champion’s fresh new take on an enduringly uproarious and surprisingly touching play is definitely a recommended showcase of impressive actorly acrobatics.
Ensemble Theatre presents
by Becky Mode
Director Kate Champion
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli NSW
Dates: 11 Oct – 16 Nov 2019
Tickets: $38 – $73