Thursday 4 January 2024

CLAIRE COME HOME: Theatre Review

WHAT: Claire Come Home
WHEN: 2 - 6 January 2024
WHERE: Theatre Works
WRITTEN BY: Amelia Newman
DIRECTED BY: Sarah Hartnell
PERFORMED BY: Sam Dolan and Lucy Orr
LIGHTING BY: Hannah Willoughby

Lucy Orr and Sam Dolan - photo by Phoebe Ann Taylor

You might think seeing a show which is billed as being about someone who tried to commit suicide is a bleak way to start the new year but fret not, dear pundits. Claire Come Home, playing this week at Theatreworks, is - rather surprisingly - not about Claire at all. In fact, the script really doesn't reveal Claire until around 10 minutes in. Rather, this newest black comedy by Amelia Newman is more of an interrogation about the holes caused by unexpected absences and the way the people standing next to those holes try and make sense of the inky abyss (and the people) they suddenly find themselves standing next to.

Claire is the central character of Claire Come Home only in the sense that she is the centre point of the two characters we meet on stage. Jared (Sam Dolan) is Claire's live-in boyfriend. Beth (Lucy Orr) is their housemate and has been Claire's best friend since grade 7. Anyone who has lived in share housing knows this is a recipe for disaster, but the play starts in the simple space of housemate untidiness, who drank the last of the milk without replacing it, and you owe me your share of the cost of... Everything seems pretty normal. Eventually we come to learn Claire is in hospital because she attempted suicide and suddenly all of those little irritations start to reveal nuances of tension, worry, confusion, and pain.

Claire Come Home is written in a picaresque style, utilising short and sharp scenes which director Sarah Hartnell interrupts with black outs and the sound of camera shutters which is designed to give us the sense of flicking through a photo book of moving images (social media reels perhaps?) which is reminiscent of the 1970s but stays just the right side of contemporary... just! This photo album construct is reflected in the white, geometric borders of an alcove style set which mimics the white borders you used to get on old photographs and which, in the digital era, you can add as a filter to your JPGs (there is no design credit for this show). Within that frame is a kitchenette and a large sofa barely remaining upright as a 2-metre pile of unfolded laundry at one end threatens to tip itself and the couch over. We've all met that pile of laundry. Admit it!

Jared spends a lot of time pedantically trying to defeat that pile of laundry. Beth spends a lot of time jumping around it restlessly and completely ignoring it. Jared and Beth appear to have been housemates for a while, but with the connecting presence of Claire missing from their lives for now, these two people have to finally spend time facing each other instead of her and find out who they really are. 

Along the way, Newman looks at questions of contagious ideation, endemic emotional isolation, and follows a range of ideological and cultural links to the question of death and life. This is not a straightforward journey and tries to activate post-modernist linkages between radical concepts. Whilst not always successful, there are certainly ideas and themes which will excite post show discussion including Roland Barthes, Samuel Beckett, Mary Shelley, Julia Gillard, dead wildlife, and lost jewellery amongst other stuff. 

The lightness this kind of philosophical leaping brings helps keep the pace and tone upbeat, but it also makes the play feel longer than it actually is. I would love to weigh in on all the debates, but this essay would never end and if this is what I find myself talking about then I have start to question whether the point of the play has become too obscure - or alternatively the play has no point? Did Barthes win the day or has Newman misinterpreted his concepts as an underlying principle of semiotics?

Regardless, this would be a much stronger work if there were some longer scenes which allowed the important interpersonal issues people face when they are connected to a person who finally decides that are not coping and try a radical solution. I wanted a deeper exploration of ideation transference, of the conflict facing Jared because of the similarities of mannerisms between Claire and Beth, of how and why both of them are using obsession to manage their emotions. Claire Come Home has the potential to be a powerful work if Newman can find their way out of the obsession with art and focus on story. In many ways I think this is what I was trying to say about their other play The World According To Dinosaurs too.

Whilst I always rail against couches taking centre stage, Hartnell has been careful to ensure that the object is used in as many ways as possible and so I forgive. Orr really takes this as a personal challenge, and I don't think I've seen the human body take on so many shapes as she struggles to settle herself. Orr has amazing performance skills including body, face, and vocal dynamics and texture. I would say, though, that her next stage of professional development needs to be voice training. The people past the first row need to hear all the lines. Luckily this show has surtitles for accessibility because even in the fourth row I was struggling to catch all her lines. Dolan is a much more centred performer and is a nice foil to Orr's manic pixie dream girl energy.

Claire Come Home suffers slightly from its unfortunate low budget but you certainly get a sense of the intense visual's Newman must have been imagining as they wrote. There is - as advertised - blood dripping down the walls, but it is very underwhelming, and I was curious about lighting designer Hannah Willoughby's choice to go with pinks rather than the command of a deep blood red. This is not a play for subtleties although I loved the absence of a smoke machine. If you come and see Claire Come Home you return to a time in theatre when it was about the actors and the stage, and not about toxic wisps of distraction everywhere you look. Okay, I admit it, I really wanted smoke to ooze from the couch in the Frankenstein scene... 

Claire Come Home is a great start to the 2024 Melbourne theatre year. The ideas are strong, performances are strong, and production values are high within budget constraints. Newman is a playwright who will have a long career creating powerful theatre. They just have to shake off those trying too hard mittens which we all have when we begin creating our art. 

The art of semiotics is to engage in communication through the use of signs and symbols common to both sender and receiver. The Barthes discussion in this play is accurate but without context. What matters most is what the receiver takes from the signal, but what is the point of the writer if there is no idea to be transferred? On the other hand, Beckett had no concept of a world where man and woman were not biologically defined so how can his Waiting For Godot restrictions even have any meaning in 2024? And was Frankenstein the monster or the scientist? Oh dear, my head hurts. And this is why you have to see this play!

3.5 Stars

As an aside, I want to give a 500-star rating for the commitment to accessibility for this show. This should be the minimun standards for every theatrical event!

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