Saturday 8 February 2014

Theatre Review: It Just Stopped (Orange Tree)

Emma Pallant and Joseph Kloska in It Just Stopped (Photo by Robert Day)

Australian playwright Stephen Sewell’s play  Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America was a significant hit for the Orange Tree back in 2004. So it’s no surprise to find Sam Walters and company returning to Sewell’s work for the final part of Walters’s last season as Artistic Director of the OT. Contemporary political drama, with a leftist edge, has been an under-sung aspect of the Orange Tree’s programming over the years and Sewell’s 2006 play – a far cry indeed from the theatre’s just-completed Middlemarch trilogy – certainly delivers on that front, offering a sometimes shrewd and surprising exploration of very contemporary panics and paranoias. At the same time, the piece also gestures towards more universal existential themes, with echoes of Beckett and Albee (A Delicate Balance, in particular) evident.

A well-off professional couple, Franklin (Joseph Kloska) and Beth (Emma Pallant), reside on the 47th floor of a luxury apartment building. American ex-pats to Melbourne, she’s a radio producer to a right-wing shock-jock and he’s a music reviewer for the New York Review of Books. Their comfortable (though sexless) lives get a jolt when they wake one morning to find that their apartment has no power, no telephone connection and no water, sparking fears that the apocalypse has come. Things take a turn for the weirder with the arrival at their door of another couple, Bill (John Bowler) and Pearl (Cate Debenham-Taylor), a pair who seem pretty sanguine about the possibility of the end of the world and have a rather radical proposition for Franklin and Beth.

Sewell has a lot on his mind in It Just Stopped, with the play touching at various points on climate change, the War on Terror and the nature of art, the political function of which Franklin denies and debates with Bill in one of the production's strongest scenes. The main target of the piece is gradually revealed to be the arrogance, isolationism and complacency of the West (read: Americans), defined here, in a rather spectacular sustained rant, as “the pornographers and polluters of the world.”.

While some key elements remain sketchy (Franklin and Beth’s status as immigrants to Australia merits further exploration), at its best the play is insightful and provocative in its examination of the way we live now. The problem, at times, is that one feels the judgement of the author weighing on the characters a little too heavily. As cut-off intellectuals who betray their beliefs with their every other utterance and action, Franklin and Beth are too clearly the objects of Sewell's scorn; therefore, there’s little chance of the viewer seeing much of themselves in the protagonists and their plight, with neurotic denial on the one hand and amoral acceptance on the other seemingly presented as the only possible responses to a crisis.

If David Antrobus’s punchy, pacey production doesn’t always overcome these problems, it proves consistently engaging and it’s exquisitely acted by its quartet, with Joseph Kloska, Emma Pallant, John Bowler and Cate Debenham-Taylor (last seen being brilliant at the Orange Tree as the abandoned spouse in The Breadwinner) delivering vivid, bold performances that mine the play’s odd shifts between sit-com comedy, political pontificating and dark poetry for all the truth they can. Flawed, then, but often fascinating.

Booking until 8th March. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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