By Lily Stokes
Carl Sternheim’s farce ‘Die Hose’ (‘The Trousers’) premiered in Germany on 15th February 1911, and triggered outrage. The satirical comedy poked fun at the German bourgeoisie and philistine rule, putting nationalistic composer Wagner and public servants at the butt-end of jokes. The explicit crudeness of the piece caused its performance to be banned by German authorities, until it was later adapted into a silent comedy film in 1927. Almost 100 years after Sternheim’s story graced Europe, American actor and comedian Steve Martin would write and premiere his own adaption at The Classic Stage Company in New York City. And thus, ‘The Underpants’ was born.
Sugary Rum Productions bring Martin’s adaptation to life in ‘The Underpants’ at The Seymour Centre. Promising to leave audiences “screaming with laughter”, this production did not disappoint. The combination of Martin’s perfectly-paced book and outstanding comic performances left audiences struggling to keep their giggles contained. It was a perfect balance of light and dark, anticipation and stagnation, bittersweet and uplifting, and I highly recommend seeing it before it leaves stages on the 23rd November.
‘The Underpants’ opens with newly-weds Theo and Louise Maske (Duncan Fellows and Gabrielle Scawthorn) returning from the king’s parade in Düsseldorf. But something terrible happened at the parade - Louise’s underpants fell down! The event becomes the talk of Düsseldorf, and its ripples become clearer when two men seek to board at the Maske estate. Italian poet Frank Versati (Ben Gerrard) and Jewish romantic Benjamin Cohen (Robin Goldsworthy) attempt to pursue Louise while living under the oblivious nose of her husband. As the Maske apartment becomes ever-crowded with nosy neighbour Gertrude Deuter (Beth Daly) and austere scientist Klinglehoff (Tony Taylor), fleeting moments of infidelity, sweetness, friendship and frustration ensue.
The first of many strengths of this production was its aesthetic success, perfectly capturing middle-class sensibilities of pre-WWI Germany. The set and costume design of Anna Gardiner created the perfect backdrop for this lounge-room comedy, with a substantial attention to detail in set-dressing and furnishings. Gardiner’s work alongside Ben Pierpoint’s sound design further established the socio-political ‘moment’ of the piece. The use of Germanic folk songs, waltzing choreography (with thanks to Cameron Mitchell) and wistful dream sequences (helped by the lighting design of Benjamin Brockman) all combined to make an immersive yet varied performance.
Beyond elements of design, the comedic performances throughout ‘The Underpants’ were absolutely thrilling. Evidently, the direction of Anthony Gooley developed the perfect characterisation of each of these archetypal stock-characters. Fellows’ conservative, stern portrayal of Theo Maske contrasted perfectly with Ben Gerrard’s fickle and passionate Versati, creating the classic straight-man-versus-clown dynamic. The comedic timing and bouncing dialogue between each character was a testament to the strong direction of Gooley, and the fantastic abilities of the cast. One particular stand-out was Gabrielle Scawthorn’s performance of Louise. Scawthorn’s nuanced changes in expression and physicality throughout the performance exhibited the growth of “a little housewife” into an autonomous woman. She was performed deeply as she transitioned between girlish innocence and a bitter reality, embodied in a particularly moving scene between her and Cohen (Goldsworthy). I could spend pages reliving the funniest one-liners, deliveries and moments, but ultimately each performance was as hilarious as the next. I applaud Gooley for bringing together such a talented and perfectly-cast ensemble.
All in all, it is the combination of Martin’s book, the embrace of aesthetics and a range of exciting comedic performances that have made Sugary Rum Productions’ ‘The Underpants’ a thrill for audiences. It brings to Sydney stages an undeniable amount of “joy, humour, colour, irreverence and innocence”. For all of us, it’s always much needed. So if you’re looking for a rib-tickler with an outstanding cast and fantastic design, go and see ‘The Underpants’. You won’t regret it!
Image Credit: David Hooley
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.