Old Fitzroy Theatre, March 15
“A SHORT show’s a good show,” critics carol to one another, pleased to discover that what we’re about to see will all be over in 60 minutes, 70 minutes, 80 or perhaps 90, straight through. One hundred minutes is usually as long as it gets without an interval, although at the Adelaide Festival Pina Bausch’s Nelken clocked in at two unbroken hours. It happens, but not often.
It’s not that critics don’t want to be there. We turn up for hundreds of shows a year, which must indicate some fondness for the theatre. It’s just that the evening may represent the third, fourth, fifth or even sixth time in the week that one has turned out. It’s understandable that the occasional earlyish night might be seen as a boon.
Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre is a place where the short show is frequently found, a situation that enables it to run two productions in tandem, one starting at 7.30pm and the late show at 9.30pm. That is where, last night, I saw two shows lasting about 80 minutes, no interval. One of them was actually called that.
In Travis Cotton’s black-as-black satirical comedy a writer, Louis (Ryan Johnson), is a really sweet guy and a disaster magnet. He’s a writer who can’t write, a theatre critic whose job is wiped out by technology, a man who can’t order a meal in a restaurant without making a meal of it, a boyfriend who can’t entirely commit and a son whose parents don’t want him around. He was, of course, one of those babies who screamed day and night.
He is the ill-starred centre around which ever-more surreal events whirl. Meanwhile, Cotton has the happiest time giving a solid whack to sacred cultural cows. When Louis’s girlfriend Claire (Sheridan Harbridge) has an extended – and acutely observed – rant against her pet hates in the theatre you can tick off just about every show you’ve seen in the subsidised theatre over the past couple of years. But theatre gets off lightly. The spawn of Satan would be more acceptable in polite society than monstrous publisher Dan Kurtz (Robin Goldsworthy, rocking the room).
Cotton, who also directed, has a sharp eye for absurdity and is happy to go the distance and beyond, as the tour-de-force Kurtz scene amply demonstrates. Not everything is up to that heady standard and 80 Minutes No Interval doesn’t always hit the mark, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. The audience around me was howling.
CONOR McDermottroe’s Swansong, which follows 80 Minutes No Interval, tills familiar soil. A young Irishman is the sole narrator of his stunted, blighted life, a story he tells with a fair degree of self-awareness, some dissembling and a soaring poeticism. One thinks immediately of Howie the Rookie, a double monologue (and far more complex drama) by Mark O’Rowe presented at the Old Fitz in 2014. The male misfits in these plays lead violent, volatile lives but the act of direct audience engagement and the intimacy of the revelations makes them perversely and troublingly seductive, especially when given performances of the calibre of Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins in Howie the Rookie and Andre de Vanny in Swansong.
For Swansong’s Occi Byrne, it counts as a signal act of great restraint when he doesn’t set fire to a house after he’s splashed petrol around it or he decides, on reflection, not to kill the boyfriend of a woman he’s sweet on. Just about everything in his life is a negative, from the fatherless upbringing to the abortive stint in the army (he just can’t get the arms and legs coordinated when marching) and the extremely unfortunate incident at the social security centre. He’s full of rage and perhaps not entirely right in the head after a stupid lark went wrong years ago. And, this being an Irish play about deprivation, Occi is a great romantic. When we first meet him he is feeding a swan – he calls her Agnes – and it gives him comfort to think about the beauty, strength and freedom swans represent. It’s a pathetic, mostly tawdry tale, given an electrifying performance under the direction of Greg Carroll that lifts its material from bathos to intense tragedy. De Vanny is a wiry man, balletically light and quick on his feet, whose every molecule vibrates with energy as he spills out Occi’s confidences or ducks and weaves in readiness for a scrap. Hair-trigger rages flare and subside without warning, and then he is smiling and laughing, delighting in some rare, small pleasure.
The unconfined, disastrous roller-coaster that is Occi’s life is revealed in all its messiness through a performance of extraordinary detail, discipline and touching emotional openness. That you care for Occi is a miracle, but you do.
Swansong was first seen in Sydney late last year and has only a short return season.
80 Minutes No Interval ends April 9.
Swansong ends March 26.