Review by Gemma Keliher
A pregnancy, a secret, and a crumbling family. Three things that might make you feel like you’ve seen too many plays like this before, but you would be wrong. Very wrong. When the first line of the program promises that “You’re in for one hell of a depressing night at the theatre”, much like me you might invite the challenge – how dark can it really get? Those that enjoy plays that truly reach deep and expose the ugliest, bleakest, and most tragic truths will appreciate that Leaves of Glass does just that.
Penned by English playwright Philip Ridley, Leaves of Glass explores the effects of grief on a family that is all too familiar with harbouring life changing secrets. Focusing on two brothers, we see histories come to light as the present reflects the past. Steven, a successful businessman and soon to be father, seems to be the reasonable older brother and favourite son. We soon realise something is amiss as the strain on his marriage intensifies and stories don’t always add up. Barry, Steven’s alcoholic younger brother and gifted artist, never seemed capable of getting his life together after the death of their father. However, it is the secret that he holds that is the crux of this story, and one that leaves you reconsidering everything you previously heard.
In a story that is all about the characters and their relationships, it’s crucial to find a cast that can fully embody the roles, and that is something this production by The X Collective achieved. The cast of only 4 showed great commitment to the roles as a believably dysfunctional family unit. Sandra Harman as Liz was entirely convincing as the bereaved mother, giving us a strong character arc from a woman distracted by her grief to someone who’s feigned ignorance may just have been to blame for the events that take place. As the pregnant wife Debbie, Caroline Sparrow weaves some thoughtful character choices through her performance that result in a colourful character. Aidan O’Donnell as the troubled brother Barry shines in an emotionally demanding role, and it is his understanding of the character and commitment to the role that makes this a standout performance. Nathan Kennedy stepped in as a last-minute recasting to the role of Steven, and I must commend him on taking on such a large and complex character. For what would have been much less rehearsal time, his chemistry and relationship with other characters played a big part in the success of the emotional hit of the climax of the story. Aside from the occasional slip of dialect, the performances were well embodied and held up under the weight of such heavy characters.
Under the direction of Wayne McPhee, I found myself mostly engaged throughout the performance. The moments that let the strong acting work down was in the stagecraft. Lengthy set changes meant too much time passed between scenes, resulting in all the energy and momentum that the actors built up being dropped. This caused the flow of the play to be lost and it did feel somewhat disjointed, whereas this play needs to continue building right until the final scene to pack the strongest punch to the audience. For plays such as Leaves of Glass, where the story is all about the relationships and internal struggles of its characters, I think it is worth considering how much of the set it truly essential. As lovely as a detailed set is, and I did appreciate the clever use of space to set up 3 different staging zones, sometimes the detail can detract. For those of us making theatre with a lower budget than the likes of QPAC, I tend to err in favour of looking at how much can be stripped back so that the audience isn’t distracted by the complexities of set and props and the constant changes and is left fully engaged in the journey of the unfolding story. If it is essential to have all these elements, the most crucial thing is finding a way to make this work without having the gaps between scenes so that the flow and energy is maintained throughout.
Overall, The X Collective’s production of Leaves of Glass took me on a very unexpected journey, where I thoroughly enjoyed being challenged on my perceptions of each character. This is a troubling play that reveals some distressing truths and plays with the idea of blame and responsibility in a life that’s as fragile as glass. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable. Chilling, bleak, and full of shocking reveals, Leaves of Glass is a story that will haunt its audiences well after the lights come up.