Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jan 19 – 30, 2016
Playwright: Phillip Ridley
Director: Alexander Butt
Cast: Jordan Cowan, Tim Franklin
Image by Andre Vasquez
People who work in theatre know how to tell stories. Whether simple truths or tall tales, their creativity determines how a narrative takes shape. In Phillip Ridley’s Tender Napalm, a pair of lovers recite passages of extravagant fantasy, making sense of their relationship by constructing worlds far from reality, but ones that reveal the struggles they experience. Ridley provides his characters with outlandish words, but little happens in terms of plot. We catch meaningful glimpses of the relationship’s tensions, and fleeting poignancies that allow us to make sense, but the writing is fanciful and deliberately embellished, feeling as though it is more suited for the page than it does on the stage.
The work is demanding of its audience’s imagination. Both actors are presented in the plainest way possible, on a bare stage with ample room to conjure up the wild scenarios of the text. Katelyn Shaw’s sound design and Ben Brockman’s lights help significantly in manipulating ambience and energy, but the effectiveness of the show relies squarely on performances by the young duo of Jordan Cowan and Tim Franklin, both of whom tackle the script with gusto and impressive determination. Cowan has a vibrant theatricality that holds our attention effortlessly, with an endearing warmth in the personalities she inhabits. Equally charming but with a more laid-back approach is Franklin, whose natural sense of humour is omnipresent and delightful.
The performers give their all for a dynamic and engaging performance, but there is a surprising and strange emptiness to be discovered after the curtain call. No matter how accomplished, any hit show will have its detractors, and no matter how obtuse, a presentation can still find an appreciative audience. What makes a theatrical piece connect with its audience can be analysed and deconstructed into a multitude of things, but there is nothing that can guarantee all to be satisfied. It is not the responsibility of artists to please everyone, in fact it is harmful to conceive of one’s career thus. There are many other greater values that can guide one’s art, and as long as those are vested and present, the creation is valid.