Theatre review: No Place Like

by **

Dear Dad

What is missing in its title is just what the play is about: Home. While festering family secrets make for delicious thespian pickings, Christopher Summers’ complex but extraordinary work casts its net wide.

Set in the familiar surrounds of suburbia Melbourne, across nearly four decades, No Place Like takes us to the realms of single-parent households, incestuous rape, familial vendetta, street violence, social apathy, free markets, discriminatory and destructive forces of conservative politics.

Two families find themselves intertwined when single-mother Astra (Alice Dawes) is reluctantly convinced that her son Trick (Ben Sheen) is in love with the voiceless daughter, Finn (Mattie Young), of conservative politician and philanderer, Warren King (Chris Runciman). What she does not know, however, is that Warren’s eccentric son, Kane (Joshua Lynzaat), is dangerously obsessed with her daughter, Donna (Ruby Mathers) — also fathered by Warren some 19 years ago.

Summers juxtaposes illustrations of erosion in the traditional family structure with manifestations of deterioration in societal values. He observes that, in a free market economy, as the rich-and-poor divide widens and grows, the society becomes less compassionate, as a whole. As the world continues to shrink, he speaks about an increasing interaction with — even creeping imposition of — foreign residents.

His scalpel is as sharp as it is uncompromising. To demonstrate the hypocrisy behind politicians’ conceit, he shows us that at the time when Warren is pumping out glib slogans on election-eve, declaring himself as “part of the solution” to mounting street violence and a rotting healthcare system, he rapes his daughter as his son kills Donna, brazenly and with impunity.

If Act One is a dire assessment of what we call home, Act Two is a sheer prognostication of catastrophe 19 years into the future. We witness a political landscape which bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Libya today — a country that burns under the brutality of a Gaddafi-like regime. Kane has risen to authority after crushing his father into oblivion. He is giddy with power, ruthless and bloodthirsty while Finn, now-articulate, leaves her husband, Trick, and their newborn son to join the insurrection against his rule.

If Acts One and Two are the savage realities of the present and exaggerated possibilities of the future, Act Three is a sliver of the whimsical past — some 19 years ago. Woven through the same tapestry — rich-and-poor divide, flirtation of a foreign flavour, hectoring and philandering — clever narrative threads provide revelatory links.

Tom Gutteridge has assembled a magnificent cast. Dawes is especially vivid, shifting from her portrayal of the helpless mother in the first act, the drifting redemptive soul in the second to the dreamy but incompassionate partner in the third. Mathers is compelling as the rebellious daughter who wrestles for her independence and her sexuality. Runciman is utterly convincing as the politician with no scruples while Lynzaat is frightening and haunting.  There are also excellent performances by Dara Klein as Helena, Ananth Gopal as Sanj/P.H. and Binnie Wong as Winnie.

Gutteridge directs this black comedy with sensitivity and control. Deftly, he deploys finesse and vulgarity with remarkable effect. Revelation of Warren’s predatory advances in Finn’s bedroom, however subtle, is no less shocking than the intestines and spine that are clearly meant to horrify. By punctuating dialogue with song, he draws the audience into the crooning characters’ emotionally tormented space.

Tanja Beer’s creative set sweeps us from the haphazard and (card)boarded-up present, the scaffolding ruins of the future, to a quaint and surrealistic past. It feels like a character in its own right — dressed in Nicola Andrews’ eloquent lighting and communicating Adam Gooderham’s sounds of wit. And not forgetting, of course, the wilful toaster, for it too has delivered with style.

Finally, No Place Like is a sombre meditation on the notion of home. The ultimate survivors are those who recognise that home is where there is love. But unless we struggle against the currents of injustice and tyranny today, we risk sliding into a cataclysmic tomorrow — whereby home shall be as elusive as it appears in its title.