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Review: Cost of Living at Bille Brown Theatre

Review by Sarah Skubala


Queensland Theatre’s latest play, the Australian premiere of Cost of Living, is a tender and affecting exploration of disability and human connection. Produced with Sydney Theatre Company, Cost of Living was written by Martyna Majok, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2018 for her work.


Premiering in 2016 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, and on Broadway in 2022, Cost of Living was nominated for four Tony Awards and draws upon Majok’s own lived experience as a disability carer. The play follows two relationships: Ani, a woman with an acquired disability, who is forced to reconnect with her estranged husband Eddie, an out-of-work truckie. And John, a wealthy Princeton student with cerebral palsy, who hires Jess as his carer, a first-generation child of an immigrant juggling multiple jobs.


Set in New Jersey the week before Christmas, Majok’s writing contained so much heart and humour. The dialogue was raw and honest yet so incredibly funny that one would not believe loneliness and disability were at the centre of the production.


Philip Quast as Eddie won the audience over with his confessional opening monologue explaining, to an offstage stranger, how he ended up in a hip bar in Brooklyn, waiting to meet the random person he’d been texting on his dead wife’s phone. The play then flashes back to several months earlier, where most of the action occurs.


As John, Dan Daw expertly handled the witty dialogue, and he and Zoe de Plevitz as Jess had some of the most compelling scenes in the play. The writing refreshingly allowed John (and Ani) to be sharp and insensitive, with John declaring to Jess that her term ‘differently abled’ was ‘fucking retarded.’


Kate Hood had the audience laughing on every line with her crackling delivery, frequently calling Eddie a prick to his face. The two relationships, one very much coming to an end while the other just at the beginning, evolved along with each other, with alternating vignette-like scenes taking place on the same stage.


Co-directors Dan Daw and Priscilla Jackman made the conscious choice to keep the play set in the US given the distinct Jersey speech rhythms in the dialogue. In turn, the move also served as a warning to Australian audiences about what happens to society when we don’t have Medicare, only relying on private health cover.


Cost of Living is the first main stage Australian production to have a 50/50 representation of disabled/non-disabled actors and almost the same representation among the creative team. It is especially impactful for Daw, recalling after the opening night show how he was told, as an acting student, that he would never work for a state theatre company. Hood experienced similar prejudice when she stopped receiving auditions after becoming wheelchair-bound in middle age due to a neurological disease.


Cost of Living was five years in the making, but it has paid off, with outstanding work from the technical team led by designer Michael Scott-Mitchell who seamlessly created a fully accessible set that included a working shower, a claw foot bubble bath, and a realistic snowstorm. Cool, monochrome lighting washes courtesy of John Rayment’s designs effectively evoked a freezing Jersey streetscape.


Queensland Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company have created a beautiful work that will stir emotions and challenge audiences to think differently about the disabled lived experience, and in the process, remind us that all humans need each other to survive. 

Image Credit: Morgan Roberts


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