16 February 2009

I Love You, Bro

I Love You, Bro
Three to a Room and Malthouse Theatre
14 February 2009
The Tower, Cub Malthouse

If you heard that I Love You Bro was not to be missed – but you missed its 2007 and 2008 seasons – don’t worry because it’s at the Malthouse Theatre until the end of the month. Don’t miss it this time.

Among the madness of the 2007 Melbourne Fringe was a small show called I Love You, Bro. I wasn’t the only reviewer praising, and Adam J A Cass secured a Fringe award and a Green Room nomination for his script. Local independent producers Three to a Room came on board and more great reviews and full houses followed at a short Melbourne return season and the Edinburgh Fringe. Whilst they were on the other side of the world, the Malthouse’s Executive Producer finally caught the show and promptly placed it in the company’s 2009 season.

Cass’s script is inspired by the true story of a Manchester teenager who convinced another boy to stab him solely from their internet communications. At the time, it was almost unbelievable that anyone’s reality could be so influenced by the falseness of the net. It happened when chat was still for the geeks, but now even my Mum chats to me on Facebook and it’s not so hard to imagine how easy it was for Johnny to lure Mark to that alley.

I’ve raved about this script before, but it continues to deserve many words of praise. Cass took the facts and made it a story. His fluid flow from past to present never ceases to intrigue, his simple use of minor offstage characters shows us so much about Johnny, and he gives Johnny opportunities to make it right – whilst knowing there is no was out.

Although it was written about a very specific sub-culture, increasing technology and our willing acceptance of the virtual world has revealed a depth to the script that wasn’t so obvious at first. As many of us now interact in a virtual world as much as Johnny did, the underlying themes of lies, deceit, loneliness and power play much more strongly than the plot about the boy chatting online. As our perceptions are changing, perhaps the script could be made even more powerful with some cautious editing.

If you saw the original production, the changes to I Love You, Bro are minimal, but the growth is substantial. Jason Lehane has redesigned his subtle, yet powerful, set for the larger venue, with his projections adding their own narrative to the stage and a lighting design that must be what cyber space looks like.

The piece is now also performed with a northern English accent. Having seen both versions, I wouldn’t have noticed the accent if I hadn’t known it was there. I do wonder about the choice to add accents when a story is universal, but it adds a degree of authenticity, without distracting from its power or from the story and Ash Flanders never lets the accent define or control the character.

I can’t imagine anyone but Flanders as Johnny. He is best known around town for his questionable “ball acting” in Sisters Grimm productions. His mad, punk-camp-drag is mighty fine, but his performance in I Love You, Bro is remarkable. The complexity of the script makes it a very difficult piece to perform, demanding that the actor be Johnny, his own object of desire and every persona he creates. Flanders relishes the difficulty and his connection to the audience reflects the state of Johnny’s thoughts, being intimate and personal, then distant and detached. He never lets us feel sorry for Johnny, but gives a sense of warped understanding and empathy.

A monologue set in front of a computer, with a disjointed sense of time and minimal action isn’t something most directors would jump at. Fortunately, Yvonne Virsik jumped. Her direction gives a satisfying completeness to the work, as she finds the changing truth in the script, lets the audience find a path though the complex plot, and guides Flanders’s performance to a level that he may not have known he could achieve.

I Love You, Bro is one of those shining examples of what can be created from passion and a desire to show a story to the world. Such romantic notions are well and good, but even artists need to pay rent and have a meal, so let’s hope that this Malthouse season opens up many more doors that help Bros’s 2009 UK tour.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.