Review: On The Shore Of The Wide World (Pantsguys / Griffin Theatre Company)

pantsguysVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 8 – Feb 1, 2014
Playwright: Simon Stephens
Director: Anthony Skuse
Actors: Alex Beauman, Paul Bertram, Kate Fitzpatrick, Huw Higginson, Graeme McRae, Lily Newbury-Freeman, Emma Palmer, Amanda Stephens-Lee, Alistair Wallace, Jacob Warner

Theatre review
Conventions of drama seek to draw in audiences, to create a kind of psychological and emotional engagement that other art forms do not offer quite as readily. Plays about family dynamics in particular tend to provide an experience that is about sentimentality, whether melancholic or uplifting. On The Shore Of The Wide World however, keeps viewers at arms length, encouraging an objective perspective and intelligent discourse about contemporary middle class family lives. This does not mean that the audience is alienated to an extent that we do not care about its characters. Conversely in fact, Anthony Skuse’s direction appeals to our humanity and allows us to empathise with each diverse personality, while engaging deeply with their challenges and circumstances.

One of the main techniques employed to place the material in an intellectual framework is the positioning of actors on stage even when the scene unfolding does not involve them. We see these “extraneous” characters watching and thinking about what is being played out, and try to scrutinise their responses. This causes a constant tension that adds dimension to every plot development, for we are always reminded of repercussions and contrasting points of view.

The ensemble is marvellous. Characterisations are convincing and intentions are clear. We know who these people are, what they think, and how they feel about each other. Kate Fitzpatrick plays the role of grandmother Ellen with restraint and a whole lot of authenticity. It is a minimal performance that works splendidly within the confines of the intimate theatre, and we never question the validity of the actor’s choices. Fitzpatrick’s work is wonderfully elegant, telling her story very persuasively, while being very still. The most memorable performance in the production belongs to Huw Higginson. The role of Pete is written with a lot of thoroughness, and Higginson’s interpretation is equally exacting. His portrayal is subtle and vulnerable, but the actor is unafraid of dramatics when they are required. His chemistry with all co-players are palpable, creating an on stage family that is entirely believable.

This is an unusual theatrical experience, one that talks to its audience with intelligence about themes that are universal. It addresses our concerns with honesty, but does not provide convenient resolutions. Like a good parent, this is a show that tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.