Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Oct 31 – Nov 23, 2019
Playwright: Steve Martin (adapted from Carl Sternheim)
Director: Anthony Gooley
Cast: Beth Daly, Duncan Fellows, Ben Gerrard, Robin Goldsworthy, Gabrielle Scawthorn, Tony Taylor
Images by David Hooley
Admirers start knocking on Louise’s door, asking to rent her spare room, immediately after the fortuitous incident of Louise’s underpants falling to her feet in public. For a moment, her little apartment feels expansive, as the narrow existence with her controlling husband Theo, begins to look more promising. Steve Martin’s The Underpants (adapted from Carl Sternheim’s Die Hose) is set in early twentieth century Germany, with a focus on the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, that explores our tendencies towards unthinking, parochial lives. We see Louise struggle under Theo’s unreasonable demands as traditional head of household, but with the arrival of new suitors, we wonder if a brighter future is on the cards.
The show begins with excellent humour, directed by Anthony Gooley who encourages an animated playfulness that strikes a chord early on. Lustre is gradually lost however, as the staging grows distant and tired, due largely to a narrative that seems to stagnate after its rambunctious start. It is a polished production, with Anna Gardiner’s set and Benjamin Brockman’s lights providing satisfying imagery, and Ben Pierpoint’s sound design proving effective at crucial plot points.
Gabrielle Scawthorne leads a strong cast, memorable for the unexpected nuance she offers as Louise. Theo is given a radiant presence by Duncan Fellows, whose sardonic approach proves reliable in delivering a delicious sense of irony to the piece. Exquisite comic timing by Beth Daly and Tony Taylor, help to elevate proceedings at each of their entrances, both actors extremely charming, with a dazzling confidence that makes us feel in safe hands. The lodgers are played by Ben Gerrard and Robin Goldsworthy, inventive performers commendable for creating a couple of richly imagined personalities.
In The Underpants, Louise is a tormented housewife at the end of her tether, wishing to be rescued. She spends her time dreaming up ways to move from one man to another, completely ignoring the fact that, even a century ago, independence was a valid option, as exemplified by her idiosyncratic neighbour Gertrude. Social acceptability almost always means that we are required to conform, which implies that to be true to oneself, one could risk being outcast. Louise can choose not to be of the respectable class, but the thought of abandoning the bourgeoisie is almost too hard to bear. Each of us constructs identities that feel immutable, and we form attachments to people and structures that hold us hostage. When walking away seems inconceivable, it usually means that one simply needs to think bigger.