Review by Thomas Gregory
The word “addiction” is never said once during the production of Pops by Charlie Josephine. Neither does the play refer to the specific addiction. Pops isn’t really a play about the general experience of addiction but about the generational harm addiction can cause, and how inner demons can hold back the relationships we desire.
Bronte Charlotte plays the unnamed daughter who has to return home because she has nowhere else to go. She is trying to get her life back together - applying for jobs, attending meetings, and trying to make friends. The daughter could be nineteen or forty, it doesn’t matter.
The audience feels the daughter's frustration, which is easy to draw from the script. Charlotte excels at bringing across the cautious optimism of the character, that hope that comes with awareness of how naive they must sound.
In some ways, Todd Levi has the more difficult role as the father. At first, one can sympathise with the older man with the consistent routine interrupted by the re-appearance of his child. As the story unfolds, it could be just as easy for the audience to turn to hate him completely. We are never given the father’s backstory, and he shows no interest in changing who he is. Hoult plays the man as resigned, closed off, and trying to get himself stuck in the past to avoid the present. Hoult’s character doesn’t want to take responsibility but isn’t so disconnected to say he isn’t responsible.
It takes a while for the actors to be in sync, and their interactions occasionally lack chemistry. However, the very nature of the script allows for such fumblings, and their individual performances are confronting and powerful.
The marketing material for the play draws comparisons with Churchill and Kane, and the influence of the former is easily recognised in the script. The story is confronting, nuanced, and very real. It isn’t a story of good versus evil but the tragedy of the mundane. No fists are thrown, and no tears are shed, but the play is filled with anger and sadness. The two-hander also has shades of Pinter and modern elements of using sound and lighting as characters, not just tools to illuminate the actor.
Parts of the script are insidiously clever. Going in blind, it would be easy to mistake the first minutes for a play about an ungrateful child. A particular audio-visual metaphor may not be picked up until the halfway mark when Josephine ensures the entire audience is on board.
The play may be brilliant, but it isn’t perfect. It sometimes gives the impression of relying too heavily on monologues when unsure how to push the action forward, early repetitions go for too long, and the final scenes could, unfortunately, be interpreted as absolving the daughter of any responsibility for her actions.
Dirk Hoult’s staging of the play uses the space well and plays with the distance between the two characters in a way that adds to the story being told about them. A key scene is presented by a translucent curtain, emphasising how rare this moment is, and how murky the feelings around it can be for the characters.
I’ve yet to see effective lighting for theatre in the Meat Market Stables, but the creative attempts of Spence Herd should be commended for their own contribution to the arcs of the characters. Herd and sound designer Evan Drill could almost tell the tale without the actors on stage, and yet every decision complements the performances perfectly.
Pops is an exploration of addiction that is nuanced and powerful. The team that has given us the Australian premiere of the show presents the challenging text in a way that is both compelling and empathetic. A stand-out fringe performance that shouldn’t be missed.