16 May 2017

Review: Spencer

Lab Kelpie
12 May 2017
Chapel off Chapel
to 28 May

Spencer. Lyall Brooks, Jamieson Caldwell, Fiona Harris, Jane Clifton. Photo by Pier Carthew

Independent company Lab Kelpie (Adam Fawcett and Lyall Brooks) have been quietly finding their space in Melbourne's theatre community with Fat Pig, Super Girly, Elergy and A Prudent Man. Discussing concerns, especially about the social power, and presenting characters that are too often ignored on our stages, they continue to bring us some of the most exciting new writing around.

Following the success of Katy Warner's one-act A Prudent Man at the 2016 Melbourne Fringe (performed by Brooks, heading to New York in November and back in Melbourne the same week), Spencer is her new full-length work. If this production – cast, design, direction, Lyall's undies – doesn't get picked up by bigger stages and/or tours the country, there's something wrong.

Going back to the family home makes the most grown-up of us behave with the emotional maturity of an 8-year-old wanting to play with a tired puppy.

Scott (Jameison Caldwell) is the younger brother of Ben (Brooks) and Jules (Fiona Harris). In his 20s, he still lives at home with his mum Marilyn (Jane Clifton), but he's the most successful in the family because he plays professional AFL. Ben's always there to offer advice, even if his own footy career didn't work out, and because he's had to move back in the family home. They are soon joined by 30-something big sister Jules who needs her old room again. Still, everyone is excited because Scott's two-year-old son, Spencer, is visiting for the first time. He may not have been around for his first couple of years, but he's family and is already considered more family than their father Ian (Roger Oakley) who hasn't seen his adult children since they were children.

Warner has captured an authentic and loving Australian suburban voice. It's confronting – we don't sound like that! Yes we do – and so familiar that it's easy to find the awkward comfort of laughing at ourselves.

Warner's characters are written from the inside out. They are so easy to laugh at, but they are always recognisably real and the reasons for their decisions and behaviour are always painfully clear.

This emotional undercurrent is supported with Sharon Davis's tight direction that lets the rhythm build and fall naturally and ensures a consistent tone that never lets the performances or the script fall into a world where we're laughing at them and not at ourselves.

And there's a lot of laughing – it's squeak-out-loud hilarious. With timing that reads the audience perfectly, each performer brings a touch of clown but they all start with the heart and humanity of their characters. They do and say the most horrible things, and we still love them like family.

Bryn Cullen's costumes of K-Mart chic uggies, too-bright colours and clothes-we-only-wear-around-the-house add to the comedy without feeling unnatural. As does the design (Cullen and Rob Sowinski) of faux-wood panels with cheaply-framed family photos, furniture and a stereo that were new (or off the side of the road) in the 1990s, and a green vinyl kitchen chair (that I want) that's slightly exaggerated and full of visual surprises. It shows us everything about this family and still feels like we've all lived there.

Even though we may not know Marilyn, Ian, Jules, Ben and Scott, they are our families. They are the frustration and  resentment, the in-jokes that aren't funny to anyone else – Coco Pops are now ruined –, the behaviour that's only accepted if you share a bond that can't be broken, and the love that makes all the bad feel worse and still forgives everything.

Warner's script should be published and this production left me feel as good as watching The Castle or Kath and Kim. It's hilarious and it hurts in all the right places because it's us.

PS. I only tweeted about A Prudent Man and Super Girly: they were both ace.