Photos: Steve Lippitt
So, a first visit to the Putney Arts Centre to see the Putney Theatre Company’s production of Things I Know To Be True; Andrew Bovell’s mini-saga of a South Australian family and its struggles with relationships, love and expectations. Put it like that and it sounds like a two-hour episode of Home & Away, but Bovell is a canny playwright and you know he will give you so much more.
The danger for any theatre company is that this play could become just that: an over-long soap opera. Did PTC pull it off and deliver more than a banal family drama? In the best tradition of soap, you’ll have to wait till the credits to find out…
The set-up is simple: Fran and Bob are an older couple – he retired; her not yet – with two sons and a daughter around thirty and a younger daughter Rosie, not yet out of her teens. Each of the children gets a soliloquy and the play starts with Rosie recounting her disappointment and heartbreak during her rite-of-passage trip to Europe.
Pip, the eldest, is 34, married and works in the state education department; Mark, 32, is an IT specialist and Ben, 28, works in financial services. Rosie’s unexpected return sparks a re-examination of the family’s relationships, where the parents’ expectations are challenged and their presumption of a retirement with their family around them is challenged as each of the older children – in very different ways – finds their own path. Each of the older children has a bombshell to drop on their parents, prompting a despairing Bob to lament, “I thought they’d be like us, or better versions of us.” Families are never that simple.
The space of the Arts Centre creates challenges for any set designer. It’s essentially a studio space, but large, with seats on three sides. The back rows are blocked off but there are still enough seats for over a hundred, with about half of them filled for opening night. The audience were appreciative enough to give the actors something to work with, and the actors generally rose to the challenge, including the neat idea of having the cast sit in audience seats for some of their exchanges (which make it seem a little odd when patio chairs are brought on later).
The play is set in the garden and the kitchen, but PTC has moved all the scenes into the garden without compromising the action; the only time this seems incongruous is when Rosie and Fran start chopping onions and discuss cooking. One shouldn’t be too critical of this; you could file it under ‘not ideal but necessary’. I suspect that flats weren’t an option, so projecting the side of the house is a similar work-around that is effective enough.
The biggest difficulty comes from the size of the acting area. This is an intimate piece, but some of the energy is lost as the characters stretch themselves into the space, and some of the passion evaporates into the cavernous space and high ceilings. Keeping the space evenly lit is a challenge too, with the actors finding occasional dark patches on the stage.
Yet there are times when the space is used very well, with entrances from the rear (and the shed) giving an excellent sense of comings and goings from the children’s diversifying lives.
There could be more energy if the actors would talk over each other more, and there is an odd moment when Bob tels Fran to “pull it back a notch” when there hasn’t been much to pull back from.
That might seem over-critical, and in some ways it is, because this is an enjoyable, humorous and touching production of a beautifully written play. The actors are confident on their lines and adept enough to keep their momentum without dropping character in the one moment when things seemed to go awry. The movements too are well rehearsed, and the occasional long scene change can’t be avoided given the costume changes dictated by the script.
Those costumes are perfect with one exception – Mia’s outfit in the final scene looks like something Bob might imagine someone like Mia would wear (if you want to know who Mia is, you’ll have to see the show) – but otherwise the outfits perfectly match the characters. Bob always looks like a man happiest in his shed; Pip is the uptight professional and Ben is clearly trying to fit in with a boisterous office crowd.
There are a couple of controversial choices by director Frances Bodiam. The first is physicality: fans of the original show will know that it had elements of physical theatre devised by the marvellous Frantic Assembly. There is none of this in PTC’s production. I didn’t hear any complaints from the audience, and quite right too. A director should bring their own vision to a play; not slavishly copy what others have done.
The other choice is not to use Australian accents. This did raise some comment in the interval, but I feel that this was missing the point: this play is about families, not Australians, and we don’t need the distraction of pondering whether an accent is more Brisbane than Adelaide.
As for the actors, they are a strong ensemble, with Aidan Kershaw’s Bob and Natasha Henson’s Rosie particular stand-outs. Aidan isn’t afraid to use silence, which others might use more. Penny Weatherall’s Fran doesn’t always hit the heights of passion, but her love scene in Act 2 with Bob is touching, poignant and beautiful. Each of the children gets a soliloquy, and Theo Leonard’s Ben – after being the least prominent character in Act 1 – truly came into his own when his turn came in Act 2. His relative emotional detachment matches his moral detachment and makes him a key figure when he might seem peripheral if played with less sensitivity.
Despite a quiet start, Emily Prince as Pip conveys the put-upon, pressured eldest sibling with a perfectly balanced blend of familial affection and practicality; trying to be mature and responsible; supporting the family while desperately needing to escape and find her own life; perhaps best embodying the play’s theme of the tension between ‘home’ and ‘escape’. Bradley White as Mark is an excellent foil to Rosie, bridging the age gap in a way none of the others could and making their uniquely close relationship believable. The only drawback is that, given his closeness to Rosie, it was surprising that she hadn’t guessed his secret.
The play’s theme of escaping the family without losing it intensifies as the evening continues, such that the cataclysmic ending exploded the family and yet brings it together, echoing the tension that had been there throughout.
The real test, of course, is the audience – the audience is always right – and the opening night audience were clearly entertained and moved in equal measure.