Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Philtrum - Theatre Review

What: Philtrum
When: 13 - 29 July 2018
Where: The Portable
Written by: Anthea Greco
Directed by: Peter Blackburn
Performed by: James Cerche, Emma Choy, Louis Corbett, Stephen Francis, Anthea Greco, Faran Martin, Jessica Martin, Tasha Sanders, and Annie Stanford
Designed by: James Lew
Lighting by: Lachlan McLean
Sound by: Justin Gardam
Stage Managed by: Mark Salvestro

Faran Martin and Emma Choy
Philtrum is an exciting new Australian play being presented by North of Eight at The Portable in Brunswick. Whilst celebrating family, playwright Anthea Greco has created a chilling portrait which shows us how badly we hurt the ones we say we love the most.

Philtrum is the story of an average Australian family - well, maybe not average. Whilst it starts off feeling a lot like the movie The Castle, with a boisterous family enjoying a bouncy, shouty dinner time with the TV blaring, we find out they are actually in Toorak, not Sunshine. It is a shame because I think the Toorak issue is central to the idea of facades and I am most disappointed with Lew for not getting this even close to right.

But I have jumped the gun. The word philtrum means that little valley which joins the middle of the nose to the upper lip and gives our mouths the cupid's bow. Whilst it is just a vestigial depression for humans, folklore tells us it is where angels touch us when we are born to remind us to keep the secrets of universe from the ears of mankind.

Every family has secrets, and this family has really big ones. For all their garrulousness and chatter, it becomes clear that everybody is holding something back. This is highlighted by Laura (Sanders) who is autistic and says and does everything in the moment she is thinking or feeling it.

The family are all grown up but the locals have gathered to send Laura out for Halloween. She eagerly awaits the arrival of her costume, but it is the prodigal daughter Cathy (Jessica Martin) who turns up instead with her new boyfriend Rob (Cerche). Everyone has a different response to her arrival and when the other daughter Nikki (Faran Martin) leaves in frustration the gates of hell open to reveal the secrets the angels (or in this case Bill (Francis)) have insisted be kept.

Greco has written an amazing play so far although I would say it is not finished. Her understanding of family nuance, keeping secrets, and the games relatives play is detailed and undoubtedly comes from living a two family childhood. She also has a degree in psychological science which probably helps a lot too. The play is effectively two acts, and I admit I was also quite surprised at the authenticity with which she presents the legal process in the second act.

Director Peter Blackburn has done an excellent job of respecting Greco's writing whilst also helping problem solve some of the more obvious elements missing from the script, or distracting us from them at least.  Don't get me wrong. The script is brilliant, but it needs another act. We don't need to know the ending but we do need to know more about the characters and where they sit in the story.

Things which I would love to see expanded include the relationship between Cathy and Bill, what happened to Rob, and I worry about the tokenism of Laura. If Greco takes the time to ween out these aspects Philtrum is a play which would be perfect for the main stage theatres of Australia and has the potential to become part of our canon.

The acting is great. The ensemble all hail from Howard Fine and therefore there is an evident cohesion of process and style which, for this play, works nicely. Jessica Martin is a powerhouse actor whose energy radiates every moment she is on stage and Francis is brilliant as the real ocker pseudo-politician. Faran Martin and Standford have a delicacy of character development which act as beautiful foils to the more dominant actors.

I strongly recommend going to see Philtrum. You will leave you demanding Greco take this play and expand it so we can find out more about this sad, scary, but oh, so recognisable family. Talk about the ultimate teaser!

3.5 stars

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