Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 26 – Jun 14, 2014
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: David Williamson
Actors: Helen Dallimore, Michelle Doake, Kate Fitzpatrick, Kenneth Moraleda, Peter Phelps, Henri Szeps, Felix Williamson
Image by Clare Hawley
This review will discuss several key plot details that are controversial and problematic, including the play’s conclusion, which is extremely contentious. If you do not wish to discover specifics of the show, it is advisable that you return to this review after attending the performance.
Cruise Control features 3 married couples on a cruise liner, and their service attendant. The travellers are differentiated by nationality, but they are all of Caucasian appearance. All are wealthy, but the show goes to great lengths to demonstrate their individually distinct characteristics, using the most old fashioned stereotypes to set up dynamics. The posh British, the laid-back Australians, and the elderly Jewish New Yorkers.
Felix Williamson plays British writer Richard Manton, the most outrageously offensive character imaginable. He is pompous, insulting, self-absorbed, and slaps his wife in the face. The man has no redeeming features, but the actor’s work is marvellous, providing scene after scene of tension and frisson. Fiona Manton is played by Michelle Doake who does a good job of providing some dignity to a woman who inexplicably remains in love with an awful man who abuses her. She is successful in her career and owns everything in the Manton household, but bizarrely persists with her dysfunctional marriage. At the end of the voyage, we catch a glimpse of her emancipation due to the sudden death of her husband, only to discover that she is plunging immediately into another relationship with a co-worker who has declared his love via the internet. Doake is a strong actor, but not even Meryl Streep can make this turn of events digestible.
Imogen Brodie is an Australian woman, with no vocation or discernible talent. Played by Helen Dallimore who has excellent presence and timing, Mrs Brodie is an attractive wife, who swans around complaining about her husband and flirting with Richard Manton, and eventually serves as the unwitting seductress who causes the death of Manton. The charismatic Peter Phelps takes on the role of dinky di larrikin Darren Brodie. He is irreverent, spends too much time working on his surf wear business, and is more than a little rough around the edges. He might be covered in tattoos and a “Bra Boy”, but because he tells Manton to stop hitting his wife, gives bottles of expensive champagne to service staff, and refuses to wear a dinner suit, he is depicted as the Aussie with a heart of gold. Phelps might be extremely likeable, but having him commit murder at the very end of the play, and inviting applause for it is completely preposterous.
The Wassermans are played by stage and screen veterans Kate Pitzpatrick and Henri Szeps. Aside from inconsistencies in their New York accents, both put on charming performances and provide all the humour that is required of their characters. Szeps shines in his supporting role, with a brilliant playfulness that makes his character endearing and enjoyable. Fitzpatrick is strong in her role, but she does not escape the uniformly poor representation of females in this outing. Silky Wasserman issues several threats to her cowering husband, constantly talking about divorce only to reveal that her menace is empty and frivolous.
It is arguable whether the explicit identification of the Wasserman’s Jewish heritage is necessary, but there is no question that the inclusion of Filipino cruise attendant Charlie, is problematic. Played by Kenneth Moraleda, Charlie seems to exist purely to show some kind of strange altruistic awareness that there are less fortunate people in the world. He does not participate in the main narratives, except to serve alcohol to the main players. We do however, hear about his struggles at making ends meet, which is totally irrelevant to the stories unfolding. Worse still, the guests make a big gesture of a generous gratuity payment when saying goodbye, further humiliating Charlie’s position of servitude. Also inappropriate is Phelps mimicking a Chinese language when on the phone for business dealings. Many in the opening night crowd did find it funny, but it is clearly nothing more than an archaic stunt that is terribly ill judged.
David Williamson’s writing is loved by many, but this latest work does not live up to that adulation. Several flaws in his directing ability are also exposed, most notably with the inelegant use of space, and frequently awkward handling of scene transitions. There is however, good chemistry between all actors, and the plot does communicate clearly at every point. This is a production that is technically accomplished, with every element of design and performance coming across polished and professional, which makes this lost opportunity even more lamentable.