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Review: This is Living at Malthouse Theatre

Review by Thomas Gregory

This is Living is a play about a group of friends trying to enjoy a New Year’s Eve together, despite professional jealousies, personal baggage, and one of the members “knowing” that this will be their last year due to leukemia. With a highly stylised set and some talented actors on board, one could expect great things - but whatever greatness that could have been somehow never materialised.

Saying “highly stylised set” is saying too little. The set for this production is one of the best professional sets I’ve seen in Melbourne. Almost half of a country home is represented, from the spacious living room and kitchen, to the master bedroom and the large patio overlooking the nearby swimming hole. It is the sort of AirBnB one would expect near Hepburn Springs, where the play is set. While some aspects of Matilda Woodroofe’s design might be a little unexpected (from the missing real estate sign to the elaborate inclusion of an entire room in which very little happens), as a whole, there is an impression of an extremely believable world and, in the diamond-shaped stage that is so very popular today, the audience is intimately immersed in the world the characters will inhabit over the two-hour show.

Of course, this design, complete with a large glass door and two long hallways, would be hell for sound designers. Add this to a script that requires much off-stage activity and the necessary inclusion of practicals, and only the most talented of designers could succeed in producing a professional result. Fortunately, Joe Paradice Lui’s design is something spectacular. Music plays a not unimportant role in this production, and its composition captures the spirit of eighties pop very well.

Only in the use of microphones for the actors is there a question regarding sound to be brought up; when multiple conversations occur, the cacophony is perhaps worse than simply allowing the actors to use their natural vocal abilities.

This set does feel lived in, thanks to the comfortable competency of the ensemble put together for the show. While Wil King has the easiest job, playing the author-insert character better developed than others, it should in no way diminish the praise they deserve for capturing the vulnerability and rage of a young man forced to watch their beloved partner die. Marcus McKenzie plays said partner with such subtlety that it is only after the show I wonder how he so perfectly captured being ill without resorting to so many of the cliched tics many actors rely on. Belinda McClory is scarily-believable as the ageing host of a lifestyle show, while Michelle Perera and Maria Theodorakis round out the cast perfectly. There are no weaknesses to be found in these brilliant people as they do their utmost to find everything interesting in the characters they are given.

Sometimes the conversations in this play come across as stilted or carefully timed choreography rather than organic playfulness, but I could never catch on entirely if this were due to an issue in directing, acting, or script. In the end, however, my mediocre conclusion is that, despite their admirable skills, the actors struggled with wording that simply didn’t have the natural elegance required to feel real.

There are risks run by writing plays based on your own life. You might spend too much time developing one character over the other. You might make the wrong plot line the priority, because it was your own priority in the past. Most importantly, you might miss just how mundane your story may become by leaving it as unfocused as real life.

Ash Flander's tale is one that could be fascinating. Too few stories are told about women in their fifties, and the exploration of what it means to succeed could have made for a compelling story. This story is sadly left on the sidelines - even when the play focuses on the ladies rather than the superficially explored relationship between a man and his dying partner, more time is spent on far-from-exciting anecdotes of drug experimentation, petty crimes, and the new year's eve conceit.

It could be argued that this play is filled with realism, as these stories could very well have happened to someone you know, but they are presented with about as much creativity and inspiration as they would from that same person over brunch at your local cafe.

There are some moments that did make me sit up, pay attention, and want for more. A quickly dismissed discussion about drag, glimpses of the original of these friendships, and the possibility of exploring how New Year's Eve rarely lives up to people's expectations all could make wonderful foci for a play, but all are quickly passed over.

It is my opinion that one of two criteria must be fulfilled for a piece of art to be considered worthwhile. Either it must have something interesting to say, or it must say it in an interesting way. This is Living is an entirely conventional piece of theatre with too few memorable moments. While one of its premises might have made a compelling conversation, the play instead focuses on more mundane dramas better suited for midday television. While a play with high production values, the lack of any risk makes it an ultimately forgettable affair.

Image Supplied


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