Children of Men at Hoyts, Broadway

I thought Children of Men was a strong film, but maybe not quite as powerful as I’d been hoping.

There was a really rich world built, and presented with wonderful cinematography. There were also some great set-pieces – most notably [spoiler follows] the intensely moving scene near the end, where everyone stops what they are doing as Kee walks through with the baby.

I thought all the performances were strong, and the characters were a good mix of personality. And yet, ultimately, I found I didn’t really have a deep emotional commitment to any of them. Maybe it was because I had a pretty good sense of how it was going to pan out at the end – who would live, who would die, and roughly where things would be at – so although I had a few shocks of people dying earlier than I expected, there wasn’t really a huge amount of tension. Or maybe you weren’t meant to connect with them too closely. Or maybe there was a problem with the writing, or with me.

So while I thought the film built up a fascinating picture of a bleak future, and the story was in many ways very strong, in the end I just couldn’t get completely caught up in it. Which is a pity.

Woman in Mind (Alan Ayckbourn): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)

Woman in Mind is the first Ayckbourn play I’ve ever seen, so I didn’t really know what to expect. We included it in our subscription because it had Noni Hazlehurst in the main role, and was directed by Gale Edwards. And the concept – woman is knocked out after being hit by a garden rake, and when she comes to she finds she has a devoted fantasy family existing alongside her less-than-thrilling real one – seemed intriguing.

Up to the interval, it was fairly lightweight – amusing, but not particularly insightful or thought provoking. But after the interval, even though the funny lines were still there, it got a lot darker and grimmer. Ultimately, the play seemed to be about loneliness and dementia and people not listening to or noticing each other. I think the turning point was where the fantasy family and the real world start to interact with each other, and the fantasy became increasingly bizarre and frightening. And the way passing comments and minor events were reflected in the fantasy world, but in a completely perverted manner, was very powerful. It was very creepy and scary by the end. And the idea that Susan couldn’t escape from inside her own head was terrifying.

I think any production of this play will stand or fall by the actor who plays Susan, as she is on stage for the whole thing and carries the full emotional weight of it. In this case, I thought Noni Hazlehurst did a magnificent job. The rest of the cast were more patchy. Their challenges were completely the reverse of Noni Hazlehurst’s: they are all relatively minor parts, so it would be difficult to find the people inside them. I think this is particularly true of the fantasy family – especially in the first act – as they are so “perfect” they don’t really have any personalities. Sophie Ross, who played Lucy (the daughter) managed to pull it off, and Mark Owen-Taylor (Tony, the brother) was okay, but John Adam (Andy, the husband) just didn’t come across as three dimensional. It was arguably the most difficult of the fantasy roles. In the Q&A afterwards, he said that one thing which made it particularly difficult was the upper-class English accent. It was very important to the role (one of the features of the fantasy family is that they are a rung or two up the social ladder from Susan’s real family), but it sounds very artificial, and this makes it all the more difficult for the character to come across as a genuinely loving and caring husband.

Another interesting point that came out in the Q&A was the question of how the comedy and the tragedy was balanced. Gale Edwards (I think) said that someone had once asked Ayckbourn when the laughter should stop, and he said “at the second last line”. She herself said that, as the director, for the first couple of weeks of rehearsals she deliberately didn’t draw the actors’ attention to the fact that certain lines should get a laugh.

And a piece of trivia from the discussion afterwards. There is a scene near the end where Susan is lying in the rain and gets absolutely drenched. They do use warm water for the rain, but it is quite a long pipe going up to the stage, and so initially the water is very cold. Noni Hazlehurst said that often it has only just reached a pleasant temperature at the time it has to stop!

Fat Pig (Neil LaBute) – Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

Spoiler: This essentially gives away the ending (though most people probably have a better than 50% chance of guessing it anyway).

Although it had its laughs, Fat Pig was ultimately quite a depressing story. Essentially, Tom throws away what could have been the best relationship of his life, because he is too emotionally stunted to handle it. Initially, it seems that he is drawn to Helen for her personality, in spite of her size; but I think the bedroom scene is designed to show that he has come to love her body as well. So the problem is not that he can’t deal with the fact that she is overweight: it is that he can’t handle what he thinks other people will be thinking about her, and thus about him. His way of ending the relationship with Jeannie shows that his method of dealing with conflict and difficult situations is to just ignore them, and hope they go away; and he simply doesn’t realise how much pain this is causing Jeannie. It seems that he is stuck at about age 15, and you can kind of feel sorry for him – but nowhere near as sorry as for Helen, whose final scene (where she offers to lose weight, if that’s what he wants) is just heartbreaking.

I though Carter was an interesting counterpoint to Tom. He is certainly selfish, and has a great capacity for cruelty (specifically the bit where he runs off lots of pictures of Helen and scatters them around the office – though actually, this was one scene I couldn’t quite believe in. I just don’t see it happening, at least in any of the offices I’ve worked in. Maybe I’ve just been lucky!) But at the same time he seems a lot more self-aware, and thus basically more mature, than Tom. This doesn’t necessarily make him a nice person, and nor does it mean that things will necessarily work out with him and Jeannie. But I think if he does dump her, it will be a much cleaner break, and won’t mess her up as much as Tom did. Of course, if that did happen, he wouldn’t feel the same kind of guilt that Tom does – but then, it’s arguable that Tom feels bad, not because he has hurt Jeannie, but because she keeps shoving her pain in his face. If he didn’t have to see it, then he’d probably be able to convince himself that there wasn’t a problem.

I thought all the performances were good. I was initially taken aback that all the actors used American accents, but I quickly got used to it. They explained in the Q&A afterwards that this was because some of the lines really needed the American intonation, and wouldn’t have worked as well in Australian accents. I guess I can kind of see this, though I’m not quite 100% convinced it was necessary.

I found the set design a little odd, in the way that some of the props were used interchangeably between home, office and other environments. In particular, I was a bit disconcerted when the mattress was used in the office scene. But this wasn’t a major problem.

And I was really pleased that, unlike The Lost Echo and other plays we’ve seen recently, this was a n ice, straightforward, beginning-middle-end production, with no talking to the audience, no symbolic characters, and nothing particularly cutting-edge or experimental about it.