Review: Never Closer (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 4 – 16, 2022
Playwright: Grace Chapple
Director: Hannah Goodwin
Cast: Emma Diaz, Raj Labade, Mabel Li, Philip Lynch, Ariadne Sgouros, Adam Sollis
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Niamh returns to her hometown in Northern Ireland for Christmas, and finds that all her old friends from school are still there. It is 1987, and there are certainly compelling reasons to go search for greener pastures, but in Grace Chapple’s Never Closer, we explore the nature of human attachments, and what it is that makes us persist, or indeed relinquish. Chapple’s writing bears a generosity that lends a sense of sophistication, to a tale about the difficult decisions that people make. It is intricately considered, with an admirable sensitivity as she navigates some hard subjects, but made palatable by an effortless humour, that keeps the journey amusing.

Direction by Hannah Goodwin leans into the comedy of the piece, relishing in each of its funny details, whilst painstakingly creating for the audience, a realism that makes everything feel authentic and convincing. There are six distinct personalities in Never Closer, all of whom are made believable and endearing by Goodwin’s uncompromising approach, of making each moment count.

It is a splendid ensemble cast that tells the story, with an incredible chemistry that makes all that they offer up, feel meaningful and true. Mabel Li demonstrates great versatility as Niamh, seamless in the way she blends the comical with the earnest, in a show that really succeeds in being tender and hilarious both at once. Adam Sollis is charged with the responsibility of instigating some very bombastic drama, as Connor, which he accomplishes with a natural ease. Emma Diaz as Deirdre and Raj Labade as Jimmy, deliver nuances throughout, that seem subtle yet are palpably moving. Philip Lynch as Harry and Ariadne Sgouros as Mary, are bold with their desire to make us laugh, and they never miss a beat.

Stage design by Grace Deacon takes us decades back in time, impressive particularly with the many smaller household items that look completely to be from a bygone era. Costumes by Keerthi Subramanyam offer a constant reminder that the story is of a time past, even if the characters feel so present and intimate. Phoebe Pilcher’s lights and Alyx Dennison’s sounds, work quietly to manufacture a familiar domestic environment, but are certainly powerful when required to cause a ruckus.

As the saying goes, “the world is your oyster” and for the young, that is especially true. To see Niamh’s friends unwilling (or perhaps unable) to leave home, feels a sad waste of opportunity, but it should probably only be for each individual, to lay judgement on how one’s time on earth is spent. Many have stayed put, and accomplished much. Others have travelled far and wide, and seen all there is. In Never Closer we are shown that not all our destinies are reliant on personal decisions. Often where we go, is animated by circumstance, but only becoming apparent with the passage of time.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Horses (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 16 – 25, 2022
Playwright: Ian Sinclair
Director: Tait de Lorenzo
Cast: Justin Amankwah, Tom Dawson, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick, Nathaniel Langworthy, Charlotte Otton, Brontë Sparrow
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
The story takes place barely a century ago, during the Great Depression. Several hundred people gather to participate in a dance marathon, in hopes of winning a cash prize of $1,500. They are only allowed ten-minute breaks every 2 hours, and we hear early on, that previous contests had gone on each time, for over a thousand hours. It is a perverse reality show, that is part Big Brother and part ancient Roman blood sport, capitalising on the human’s insatiable thirst for exploitative entertainment. Based on Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel and Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, this new adaptation by Ian Sinclair moves the action from California to Sydney, and is concisely retitled Horses.

Although retaining the macabre qualities of the original, Sinclair’s vision is decidedly humorous, in this very modern transposition to the stage. Indeed, the bizarre conceit lends itself to a dark comedy, which director Tait de Lorenzo does not hesitate to use to her advantage. Instead of relying on the tragedy’s undeniably sad dimensions, de Lorenzo provokes us into thought, by making us laugh. The result is a surprisingly funny show, that also cares to be poignant enough for the important questions, about who we are and why we are, to emerge.

Production design by Cris Baldwin draws attention to the event as a spectacle for amusement, whilst ensuring that we never lose sight of the difficult times during which it had occurred. Benjamin Brockman’s lights convey the sorrowful heart of the story, even when offering bedazzling concoctions that fascinate our eyes. Similarly sophisticated, is sound design by Zac Saric offering an intricate and complex landscape, often telling us more than the dialogue does, about all that we need to know about Horses.

An excellent ensemble of six players, individually idiosyncratic, but wonderfully cohesive as a whole, take us on a revelatory and ultimately brutal vaudeville, about our worst selves. Nathaniel Langworthy and Charlotte Otton are effortlessly comical, with mischievous presences that insist on our mirthful responses. Tom Dawson and Caitlin Doyle-Markwick bring whimsy to the production, with a sense of experimental freedom, that helps us broaden our minds, as we form meanings from a theatre that speaks more in terms of symbols than it does in words. Justin Amankwah and Brontë Sparrow deliver the sentimental aspects of Horses, both captivating, and effective in engaging our empathy, for this hideous moment of self-reflection.

Watching Horses today, we need to be conscious of the difference in circumstances, between now and then. Although poised for a period of recession, we must not interpret the story in too similar a way from when it had been written. It is crucial that the truth about extreme wealth disparities in the twenty-first century, should play a significant role in modern interpretations of the story.

Like the competing dancers in Horses, we often find ourselves fighting one another, thinking that that is the only way to get ahead. Convinced that there can only be one winner in so many of our circumstances, we have been trained to not only act ruthlessly, but to submit to humiliation and self-blame. We have grown accustom to the top ten percent owning virtually everything in the world that is commodifiable, and we let them manipulate our lives to serve their purpose, of worsening that unforgivable discrepancy.

There is no reason, especially today, for any of us to demean ourselves in the name of entertainment, in order to make a buck, yet that seems to be par for the course. In so much of today’s idea of amusement, from television to TikTok, people put themselves through all manner of debasement, so that they can become winners of little consequence. The ones who benefit most, do not have themselves shown. They might shoot the horses, but they show us no mercy. They simply send in the clowns and reap all the rewards.

www.belvoir.com.au