Review by James Ong
After making quite some noise upon it’s 2018 premiere in the UK, Ulster American is back in Australia and has plenty to say regarding the current climate in the entertainment industry. Outhouse Theatre Company’s newest show takes over the Reginald Theatre in the Seymour Centre and brings us a relevant and crackling social dialogue that is sure to leave audiences with plenty to say.
We follow an extended conversation between three creatives as they prepare to stage a politically charged new West End play. The affable, yet morally flexible director Leigh Carver (Brian Meegan) sits opposite an increasingly out of touch Hollywood star in Jay Conway (Jeremy Waters). The two men who are emphatic in expressing their progressive and feministic beliefs, but somehow the introduction of the female playwright seems to make things a little more murky. The up and coming Ruth Davenport, played with charming zeal by Harriet Gordon-Anderson, has poured her heart and soul into her work and is steadfast that her authentically crafted story will make it to the stage unaltered. The trio is quite simply fantastic; their wit, chemistry and impassioned disagreements left the audience wrapt thought the 80 min runtime, which is quite a feat considering it largely consists of philosophical and sociological debate, rather than a majorly eventful narrative.
Meegan’s mastery of linguistic gymnastics is quite a captivating display and he truly earns the audience’s sympathies before the inevitable unsavoury elements of his personality shine through. His authentic and guiltily relatable logic starkly contrasts with the wholly inauthentic and logically deluded Jay Conway (Jeremy Waters), the faux-progressive Hollywood actor he is tasked with directing. Conway is a truly despicable machine of a human that functions only to ingest and bastardise any noble thoughts of his counterparts. I’m sure you can gather just how much Mr Conway gets under my skin! In fact, in the more sinister scenes, Waters manages to flush his face (and wankily exposed chest) a bright red as if a devilish ignorance in tangible beneath his skin and is coursing through his veins.
Gordon-Anderson’s performance as the fierce yet vulnerable playwright seems to carry with it the accumulated frustrations of years worth of rejection and dismissal - an experience all too familiar for generations of women who have been mistreated by an unfair industry, run by an unfair power structure. In a broader scope, Ulster American touches on how the push for representation and diverse stories is often undercut and hamstrung by a system that doesn’t desire any real change. An unexpected, yet wholly appropriate final scene make this point absolutely clear: that progressive movements continue to be downplayed, ignored or (potentially even worse) commodified.
Ulster American’ director Shane Anthony has made sure that this disheartening truth is positioned front and centre, ensuring that despite the layers of plain BS we are subjected to, that the audience can plainly see that for all the female-forward rhetoric that powerful men spew, not much is changing in any tangible way. Ironically, this production of Ulster American was written, directed, produced and performed by white men. It should be no surprise then that nearly every other crew role available was filled by women - in fact any other decision would be downright irresponsible (for any show, but particularly for one so focused on gender imbalance in creative professions). On an entirely unrelated note, the broader design elements of the production are very well tuned. The stand out here is Veronique Benett’s set design, with that positioned a gorgeously rendered elite London apartment as the battlefield for the deliciously quippy barbs being thrown about
Ulster American is an impeccably tuned and magnificently designed production that draws laughs and gasps in equal numbers. You’re sure to garner some strong feelings with this intentionally provocative production and walk away reaffirming your position as a progressive advocate, but we’ll have to wait and see if words are put into practice.
Image Credit: Richard Farland