By Matt Pritchard
I went into 'The Van De Maar Papers' at Newtown's Old 505 Theatre mostly blind, and it was wild. I'd advise you do the same, but it's hard to write a review that way so I'll say this now. If you're on the fence about it, I recommend it. I also recommend going in as blind as possible, but there's enough going on in the show that even if you know the story you'll still get a lot out of it. So yeah, short version, check it out! (Do note, it does run at 2 and a quarter hours with intermission)
Now, the long version. 'The Van De Maar Papers' written by Alexander Lee-Rekers and directed by Camilla Turnbull, feels simultaneously like a throwback to a very 'old school' kind of theatre, while still maintaining a contemporary sensibility. The show centres around four protagonists, two are members of the titular Van Der Maar family, a multi-generational nouveau riche dynasty built around the work of their patriarch, the industrialist and 'model immigrant' Levi Van De Maar. The story begins not long after Levi's death with his estate being divided up by his third wife, and now family matriarch, Christine (Lucy Miller). During the process a collection of papers have been passed to Madrigal, a struggling publishing house led by the foppish Ron Huck (Terry Serio) and his designer colleague Sarah Fuller (Nathalie Murray). Christine sends her favourite grandson, and family black sheep, Frank (Simon Thomson) to find out more about the papers and Levi's request that they be published upon his death. This is when we find out that Levi Van De Maar, the staunch, austere industrialist, has been writing porn. Like, a LOT of porn. Well, erotica is probably the word for it, but it is explicit and plentiful, and Frank needs to decide what he's going to do with the papers.
When you summarise the plot it sounds like the perfect set up for some good, old-fashioned farce, but it's not. There are comedic elements, sure, and there are moments where the show feels like it teeters on the edge of becoming a full-blown comedy, but instead the show veers steadily away from this in favour of an exploration about the nature of identity and family politics. Lucy Miller's performance as Christine is a good example of this. A character who initially comes across as a two dimensional ice-queen is gradually revealed to be just as trapped and frightened by the Van De Maar name as her Grandson. The difference between the two being Christine understands the power of the Van De Maar name, after living without it and the doors it immediately opens.
And it's not just Miller, all the performers do a great job. Terry Serio brings a lively dandy-esque energy to Ron, and both Simon Thomson and Nathalie Murray approach their respective roles of Frank and Sarah with a natural sincerity that makes their interactions on stage all the more engaging. Anciliary roles are played by Melissa Hume, Jessie Lancaster, Tom Matthews and Sophie Strykowski as "The Attendants", a modern Greek chorus of sorts. Despite playing multiple roles and having an almost inhuman aesthetic thanks to their uniform black and white costuming and heavy white makeup, the actors switch between roles quickly and effectively, and what could have gotten confusing was always very clear.
The staging and costuming feels very out of time. For the most part it feels like it takes place in the mid-20th century, but the use of modern technology puts it in its own little temporal bubble. The difference between costuming for the key characters and the attendants works nicely, creating a quick visual shorthand for setting up most scenes. The set itself feels very 'old school' theatre, with two raised areas on either side of the stage, making up Christine's office and the offices of Madrigal. The sound design by Alexander Lee-Rekers is also worth mentioning. It's a moody, synthy musical soundscape that, again, places the show in its own timezone, while also creating an unsettling feeling as the show progresses.
And it's that unsettling nature that lets the show shine. As an audience member you reach a point where the initial shock of the papers wears off. Sure, at first it's funny to picture a Lang Hancock type penning a mary-sue novel where he bangs his way through all of classical mythology, but the more you learn about his family and the effect his life and now death has had on them, the funny starts to wear off. Instead you're left with people in crisis, stuck with a name and a legacy that they were already unsure if they loved or hated, now needing to deal with even more complications and being unable to discuss it with the man who threw the metaphorical cat among the pigeons.
I recommend seeing 'The Van De Maar Papers' if you get the chance. It's a long show, but it's worth your time.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.