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Review: Multiple Bad Things at the Malthouse Theatre

Review by Naomi Cardwell

Under an oval patch of moonlit sky, a group of warehouse workers labour to assemble a mammoth structure out of golden components.

The four characters of Multiple Bad Things divide over intersecting hierarchies of gender, power and ability. As a supervisor, Scott Price reclines indolently and scrolls on his phone - “just trying to enjoy my life,” he shrugs. Simon Laherty’s character - management class - sits with his back to the others, playing solitaire and browsing the internet on his computer. Occasionally he takes a ponderous journey to fetch himself a snack, crossing the stage back and forth like an unhurried pendulum. 

Naturally, the labour itself falls to the women. It’s excruciating to watch Sarah Mainwaring struggle on her own with huge components which are at least as long as she is tall. The mysterious framework by set and costume designer Anna Cordingley is an agglomeration of intersections – many of them spikey and dangerous, all of them obstructive. 

Wielding intersectionality and human resources doublespeak like precision weapons, Bron Batten’s antagonist is the chilling embodiment of a broken government institution. Mothering and “speaking from love” at one moment and gratuitously wanton the next, she’s all power and coercive control, cleverly dolled up in saccharine pink by Cordingley.

The production drinks deeply of the Absurd theatrical tradition, and is littered with scattered set elements and fractured, disjointed dialogue. It’s enough. The disparate snatches of ablism and prejudice are shamefully familiar, collaged from language very much alive in Australian workplaces today.

There are thrilling veins of almost Bekettian existentialism, with Laherty twice reminding the audience that none of this is real - except for pain and suffering. Alienation abounds. One hilarious, excruciating vignette sees Mainwaring grapple with a recorded telephone menu – voiced with wicked aplomb by Rachel Griffiths – which escalates from the usual passive-aggressive reminders about respect into a series of threats that give way to an all-out barrage of filth. “I’m sad,” Mainwaring begins, when she’s finally given her chance to speak.

But nobody’s listening.

Back To Back Theatre are the jewel in the crown of Australian performance art. Having won the prestigious Ibsen award in 2022, the company continues to create truly fearless works which express the uncomfortable truths the ensemble cast endure – all of whom live with disability or neurodivergence. 

It’s confronting, watching Batten develop her character into a monstrous modern-day Nurse Ratched, delivering her lines with a dangerous, canny sweetness that glints with hidden cruelty. Scott Price is a staggeringly courageous actor, professional and unflinching as he deals in turn with some of the toughest scenes I’ve seen in theatre this year.

Mainwaring’s performance is breathtaking, as she composes her character out of resolute and steadfast physicality and a hilarious, biting wit. Lit commendably by Richard Vabre, Mainwaring’s tableaus in silhouette against the cloudy sky are works of art in their own right, which will stay with me for days. It’s a thrill to see Simon Laherty, the ensemble’s longest-serving veteran, performing with the gravitas of a solemn ringleader. His command of the room is impressive as he breaks the fourth wall to deliver eerie addresses to the audience about truth, pain, and content warnings - and his polished sense of irony shines as he leads the cast in bowing deeply at the close of their own night’s labour.

It’s a rare treat to see a Back to Back production here in Melbourne. Freshly arrived from an international tour, and soon to return to their home base in Geelong, the company will no doubt be looking forward to a well-earned celebration of another triumph at the cutting edge of Australian performance art. For months, the industry’s been buzzing with anticipation for this performance – and it only exceeded my expectations. If you only go to the theatre once this year, see Multiple Bad Things.

Image Credit: Jeff Busby


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