Review: Little Brother, Big Sister at La Mama Theatre

Review By Casey Bohan The program notes for Michel Paul Tuomy’s Little Brother, Big Sister, explain the play’s first form as a commentary on schizophrenia, from the point of view of someone diagnosed with it. This production at La Mama Courthouse in Melbourne deals with much more than this originating concept. It is a character driven piece which follows the relationship between two siblings, Michel and Karen (handled masterfully by Adam Cass and Jane Barry), as they deal with the loss of their parents, Michel’s Schizophrenia and the complications that come with such a diagnosis, both internally and externally. At its core, the play is a heartfelt exploration of their bond. Michel has a passion for literature and is writing a novel. Karen’s love of art finds her in Europe, enjoying life as a painter. Both brother and sister share a deep admiration for each other’s work and this mutual understanding forms the basis of their unique sibling communications. After Michel’s diagnosis, Karen leaves Europe to provide support and care for her brother. In a lesser work, it could be expected that the change in dynamic between them would cause resentment and tension, perhaps resulting in some traumatic explosion towards the plays conclusion, but you will find no unnecessary drama here. Rather, it is a love letter to those diagnosed with schizophrenia and the people who care for them. A tender message of support and hope. Adam Cass plays Michel with an endearing innocence and sincerity. A performance rich with nuance, Cass takes the audience into Michel’s world with the ease of a friendly hand, switching from delicate moments of upset to contagious moments of joy. Any sense of stereotype is omitted in favour of understatement and warmth. Jane Barry is equally skilled in her portrayal of Karen. The presence of what appeared to be the script (it was not addressed why this was included; whether artistic choice or necessity of circumstance) neither slowed nor hindered her sensitive performance. Where other actors may have invested in coldness, Barry maintained Karen’s authentic grace and compassion toward Michel, allowing the love between these siblings to strengthen as the central pure and beating heart of the story. Together they have created character relationships that are deeply genuine and refreshing. It is clear that director Cathy Hunt has guided the cast and creative team to work with a conscious respect for those of whom stories like this are a reality. Deftly working with the subtleties of the space, she leaves room for elements of performance, light, sound & design to breathe unintrusive life into the piece. There is nothing frivolous in her direction. At no point does a moment feel empty. Shane Grant’s lighting design is beautiful in its evocativeness, shifting the mood seamlessly with the progression of the story. While Jess Keeffe’s sound design is equally beautiful, lending its support to the lighting and performances. This production is a prime example of what magic theatre can be when everyone involved is not only talented but are all working to honour the art. In an artistic landscape filled with shows aiming to unsettle, it is a welcome breath of fresh air to experience a work that openly cherishes its audience. Some companies opt to conceal content or trigger warnings, valuing artistic shock over emotional comfort. Little Brother, Big Sister is not precious with its dramatic elements. They allow their audience to consider them, if they wish, prior to the show. In collaboration with La Mama, they have created safe ‘quiet’ areas for patrons to use should they find the material confronting at any point before, during or after the performance. As our theatre and storytelling expands to cover new difficult, overlooked and misunderstood experiences, it feels important to remain considerate of audiences and the invisible stories that come into the theatre with them. Little Brother, Big Sister is a beacon of considerate storytelling done well. Nothing is soft or watered down, simply empathetic and respectful, with no interest in causing emotional stress or damage. Writer Michel Paul Tuomy (who identifies with having a lived experience with schizophrenia) expressed the team’s wish for the play to be a “gentle journey”. I believe they have achieved that goal. This is a theatrical experience that does gently take you on a journey. One that shows you sides of an experience that you might never have considered and does it without attempting to shame or startle anyone. Special shout out must also be given to Toumy and Elyss McCleary for their visual artistic contribution for the characters. These were beautiful pieces, well worth their own time to shine in a gallery. Little Brother, Big Sister is a professionally executed piece of theatre art in which the whole team should be very proud. I hope it gets another opportunity to be shared with audiences after this seven-day lockdown. It is must-see theatre.

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